The way Pickerington High School North football coach Nate Hillerich sees it, playing three 2017 playoff teams in the first three weeks of the season can only help his team as it looks to make a deep postseason run.
The Panthers passed the first test, defeating Olentangy Liberty 17-0 in their opener Aug. 24. Next up is a home contest against Dublin Jerome on Friday, Aug. 31.
Last season, North defeated Jerome 35-0. The Celtics, however, went on to qualify for the Division I, Region 2 playoffs, where they lost to eventual state semifinalist Liberty 35-0 in the first round to finish 7-4.
North plays host to Olentangy Orange, which lost in the first round of the Region 2 playoffs last season, on Sept. 7.>> Friday Night Live: previews, scores, recaps and more << >> Friday Night Live: Pickerington North 17, Olentangy Libery 0 <<
"With our schedule this year, it's one week at a time," said Hillerich, whose team lost to eventual state champion Pickerington Central 31-14 in the Division I, Region 3 final last year to finish 10-3. "There's quite a few playoff teams on the schedule and this week we have Jerome, which had a big win against Watterson. They're really well coached, good players. ... You want to play good people who are going to test us."
Jerome opened Aug. 24 with a 41-14 win at Watterson, but Celtics coach Bob Gecewich realizes his team faces a step up in competition in Week 2.
A big concern for Gecewich is North's defense, which shut out a potent Liberty offense, allowing just 126 total yards.
"That defense is lights out," Gecewich said. "They cut their guys free and get after it."
Among the key players on the Panthers' defense is senior linebacker Ben Johnson, who had 15 tackles against Liberty.
"Most of the teams we're playing early in the season were playoff teams last year, so they definitely get us ready for the playoffs," said Johnson, an Ohio University commit. "Last year, we held (Jerome) to something like 27 yards in total offense, so defensively we dominated them and we're going to try to do that again this year. It was a fun game."
Senior quarterback Mike Lowery, who started for the Panthers as a freshman but played at Gahanna the past two seasons before moving back into the school district, threw for 212 yards and two touchdowns against Liberty.
Jaylon Baylor was his primary target, making seven receptions for 117 yards and two scores.
North could receive a boost on offense if senior running back Larry Martin returns to the lineup. Martin, who rushed for 605 yards and six touchdowns last season, missed the opener with a knee injury but could play in Week 2, according to Hillerich.
"Pickerington North is legit," Gecewich said. "They have guys all over the place and Nate knows they're really good this year. It will be a good challenge for us. It will be a good challenge for the coaches and the players. Once again, (we need to) just go out and compete as hard as we can and see what happens."
Jerome's offense was impressive in the opener, amassing 392 total yards.
Ezra Strickland rushed for 159 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries and quarterback Hayden Schell completed 12 of 21 passes for 168 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
Trey Ballengee had five catches for 90 yards and a score.
"They have a really good offensive line. They have big, physical kids," Hillerich said. "The quarterback is a kid who can throw and run. Offensively, they're a dangerous team. On defense, they're aggressive, they put a lot of pressure on you."
Gecewich said his team will need another solid performance from its defense.
"No one quits. Everyone runs to the ball," Celtics junior defensive back Scott Sonnanstine said. "We play as a team and have everybody's back."