On its way to a second consecutive Division I state semifinal appearance last season, the Olentangy Liberty High School football team had one of its toughest tests when it played Gahanna Lincoln in the second round of the playoffs.
The Patriots won that matchup 17-14, and the fifth-seeded Lions will be looking to avenge that loss when they visit fourth-seeded Liberty in the first round of the Region 2 playoffs Friday, Nov. 2.
The Gahanna-Liberty winner plays top-seeded Reynoldsburg or eighth-seeded Toledo Start in a regional semifinal Nov. 9.
"They're a nice-looking football team with a lot of good athletes running around making plays," Liberty coach Steve Hale said. "(Gahanna defensive coordinator Bryce) Culver was on my staff at one time and does a nice job of getting kids ready. They're big and they run really well, and in their league, you've got to be able to run."
Both teams will have an opportunity to further solidify seasons that were filled with ups and downs.
Liberty, which is 6-4 overall, ended up with a share of the OCC-Buckeye Division championship at 4-1 with its 42-0 victory at Westerville North on Oct. 26 and has won five of its last six games.
The teams the Patriots have lost to are a combined 30-10, and two of them made the playoffs. Cleveland Glenville, which beat Liberty 19-17 on Aug. 31, was ineligible for the Division III, Region 10 playoffs for using ineligible players.
Gahanna lost 14-10 to Pickerington North on Oct. 26 to close its regular season at 5-5 overall and 2-3 in the OCC-Ohio, but beat two playoff qualifiers in Westerville Central (14-13 on Sept. 21) and Reynoldsburg (10-7 on Oct. 5).
In addition, the Lions lost three non-league games to opponents that made the postseason.
"Obviously, (Pickerington North has) a high-powered offense, and to hold them to 14 was good, but it wasn't good enough," Lions coach Bruce Ward said. "We're going to try to clean things up, watch the film and see places where we can get better."
In Liberty's win over Westerville North, quarterback Mitchell Okuley completed 11 of 15 passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for a score. On the season, Okuley is 82-for-170 passing for 1,151 yards with 10 touchdowns and has 11 rushing touchdowns.
Running back Aidan Kenley has rushed 184 times for 798 yards and three touchdowns and also has 15 receptions.
The Patriots' wide receiver depth likely will be better with the return of Grant Wilson, who did not play in Week 10.
Liberty will be tasked with moving the ball on a Gahanna defense that held Pickerington North to 222 total yards.
Panthers quarterback Mike Lowery, who was the Lions' quarterback last season when they faced Liberty but transferred during the offseason, was held to 118 yards passing by his former team.
According to Ward, linebackers Sam Young, David Williams and Zajdi Hoxha and defensive backs LaCarr Trent and Jayden Hill led the way in keeping the Panthers' offense in check.
The steadiest member of Gahanna's offense has been senior running back Justus Harris, who had 169 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries against Pickerington North and has 944 yards rushing and eight touchdowns on the season.
"Harris is a good player," Hale said. "They're really good and are going to give us a great challenge. They've played an incredible schedule, they're athletic and they make plays when they need them. (Against Pickerington North, they) came up one play short.
"I thought we did what we had to do (against Westerville North). Obviously, they've had some struggles along the way and they've got a new coach and are developing their program, so once we got on a roll, things kind of snow-balled from there. I liked how our kids played offensively, and defensively we made plays."