The similarities between last year and this continue for the New Albany High School football team, and coach Pat Samanich would be happy if that trend stops Friday, Nov. 17, when his fifth-seeded Eagles play second-seeded Massillon Washington in the Division II, Region 7 final at Arlin Field in Mansfield.
New Albany's run to the regional final after a 1-3 start in 2016 ended in that stadium with a 17-6 loss to another Massillon school, Perry.
The Eagles also started 1-3 this season, and the only difference from last year's team on paper so far is New Albany lost one game in the OCC-Capital Division, 14-0 at Big Walnut on Oct. 13. New Albany eventually shared the league title with the Golden Eagles before putting together another playoff run.
"We'd like to change that script for sure," said Samanich, whose team is in a regional final for the fourth time in six years. "Being in a regional final is something we don't take lightly. We've been here a few times, but we don't consider this the norm. The only way you get here is to trust the process over and over again."
The Eagles are 8-4 and coming off a 30-6 rout of top-seeded Walnut Ridge in a regional semifinal Nov. 10 at Gahanna.
Michiah Burton rushed for 189 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, Luke Muter caught four passes for 58 yards and two scores and New Albany outgained the Scots 361-164, including 251-21 on the ground.
Massillon is 9-3 and coached by Nate Moore, who led Cincinnati La Salle to the 2014 Division II state title and came to the Tigers after that season.
Running back Jamir Thomas rushed for a career-high 196 yards and four touchdowns on 37 carries Nov. 10 in a 28-7 win over sixth-seeded Ashland in a regional semifinal at Wooster. He scored two touchdowns within two minutes of the third quarter to expand a 7-0 lead to 21-0, and added a third score near the end of the quarter.
Thomas, who has rushed for 1,283 yards and 20 touchdowns on 298 carries, has offers from Division I college programs including Cincinnati, Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State and West Virginia.
"He's a downhill kid. We have to get in the backfield and not let him get up a head of steam," Samanich said. "They're an old-fashioned 'I' offense, but out of the (shotgun). It's northeast Ohio-style football in that respect. Defensively, we'll see a lot of slants and angles up front. They'll run a 3-4, but we'll see a lot of four- and five-man fronts. They have a very good overall team defense."
Sophomore quarterback Aidan Longwell, who has committed to play baseball at Kent State, has completed 133 of 220 passes for 1,987 yards with 19 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Massillon outgained Ashland 409-223 and benefited from three Arrows turnovers, all of which came in Tigers territory.
"We played well," Moore told the Massillon Independent. "We forced some turn-overs, which was huge for us, especially in the first half."
The Tigers, who are in their first regional final since 2012, have been in the playoffs 24 times.
The winner advances to a state semifinal Nov. 24 at a neutral site to be determined.
New Albany is seeking its third regional championship and first since 2012, when the team was led by future Ohio State and NFL player Darron Lee.
Lee, who now is a linebacker for the New York Jets, tweeted Nov. 11 that he plans to attend the game. The Jets are on a bye this weekend.