Westerville North High School football coach Scott Wetzel feels like he will be leading his squad into a lions' den Friday, Aug. 25, when the Warriors play at Groveport Madison in the season opener for both teams.
North won last year's season-opening matchup 24-21 after the Cruisers won the previous two meetings in 2015 (28-7) and 2014 (14-13).
"I think we shocked them a bit last year," said Wetzel, who is in his second year at North. "There will be no shock factor this year. They're going to be out for redemption, especially with everything they have going on over there.
"With them christening their new (synthetic turf) field and renaming the facility and their hall of fame ceremonies and the 'wow' factors involved in all of that, they will have a huge crowd and a great atmosphere on their side. All of that gives them extra motivation, so we have to be ready to play at the kickoff."
The contest will be Groveport's first on Le'Veon Bell Field at Cruiser Stadium. The Cruisers didn't even get to hold a preseason scrimmage on their new field, as installation of the turf wasn't completed until last weekend.
Bell, a 2010 Groveport graduate who now is an NFL star running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers and is a member of the Cruisers' 2017 hall of fame induction class, donated $750,000 for the new turf.
"It took my breath away and was totally unexpected, but it was real important for him and his family to give back to this community," Groveport coach Bryan Schoonover said. "They are a great family and they left us struggling to find the right words and enough praise for what they did."
However, the Cruisers must put the 'wow' factors behind them early and execute well against the Warriors, who finished 3-7 last season.
"The new things will be here for a long time, so there's time for our guys to be in awe of it all, but that time won't be during practices or games," Schoonover said. "We've got to focus on details and play good, fundamental football. All the other stuff won't matter if we don't block and tackle."
The Cruisers returned just three starters on offense and two on defense following a season in which they finished 6-4. They remained in the playoff hunt in Division II, Region 7 until losing to New Albany 35-28 in week 10.
Groveport has moved to Division I this season.
"There is no doubt that (the loss to North) was a big one last year," Schoonover said. "We fought hard, but they stung us. I think we responded well from that loss because our big senior class got motivated by that. Although we'll either start or play 13 freshmen and sophomores this year, they have to be ready from the get-go."
Groveport returned quarterback Jacob Huffman (126-for-204 passing for 1,679 yards, 12 TDs, 4 interceptions) and receiver Izayah Aekins (69 receptions for 1,056 yards; 22 carries for 162 yards; 13 total TDs; 1,871 all-purpose yards) on offense, but will need to jell up front on both sides of the ball.
Deahmi Guinn is back to lead the way on the offensive line and also should excel in the Cruisers' 4-3 defense at end or tackle. Other key players on defense include linemen Darrell Smoot and Jasiyah Robinson and linebackers Jacob Boals and Skyler Mouser.
North will be led on offense by quarterback Jacob Woods and fullback Bodi Bien.
Woods (17-for-49, 398 yards, 4 TDs, 4 interceptions) started three games last season as an injury replacement, while Bien (155 rushes, 757 yards, 7 TDs) missed two games with a leg injury.
Jeremiah Burton and Alek Downs will help anchor the Warriors' offensive line and will have double duty in the team's 3-4 defense, where Downs had a team-high 63 tackles last year at linebacker. Burton plays nose guard.
"We saw (Groveport) in 7-on-7s and they might be a young team, but, boy, do they have some talented and athletics kids," Wetzel said. "They like to get the ball on the perimeter and use that speed. They've got a ton of speed and we'll have our hands full, for sure.
"We have a mix of veterans and rookies, but I think we've got the right personnel to go two-backs or to spread the field and get in the gun. Our biggest concern is injuries, because we don't have a lot of depth in terms of numbers."