The Reynoldsburg High School football team has been preparing for its OCC-Ohio Division opening opponent, Pickerington North, since early September.
That's not to say the Raiders were overlooking their previous opponents, but it's a sign of the respect that coach Buddy White has for the Panthers heading into their matchup Friday, Sept. 28, at Reynoldsburg.
North leads the all-time series 9-1, including a 35-7 win last fall. The only victory by the Raiders was in 2015, when they won 10-7 on their way to making their second playoff appearance.
"Everything that we're doing right now and for the last two to three weeks has been geared toward beating Pick North," White said. "It's a lot easier to prepare for a team when you know what they're going to do and what they've done. With the competition they've played (during the first four weeks) they've overwhelmed (their opponents) with talent and speed and they've got a good defense."
Reynoldsburg beat Westerville South 28-0 on Sept. 21 to improve to 5-0, which according to school administrators is the program's best start in 50 years.
North lost to Dublin Coffman 31-28 on Sept. 21 but is 4-1.
The Raiders were projected to have the most computer points in Division I, Region 2 this week, while the Panthers are contending for a playoff berth in Division I, Region 3.
In last week's state poll, Pickerington Central was third, North was fourth, Hilliard Davidson was fifth, Reynoldsburg was sixth and Coffman was tied for 10th.
"(The loss to Coffman) showed us a lot as a team," North senior tight end Tyler Foster said. "We just made too many mental errors, and you can't win a football game like that. We're looking to bounce back strong (this) week. We're very excited to play Reynoldsburg. Both of our teams have outstanding athletes. This is a great game to start off league play with."
Against Coffman, senior slot receiver Jaylon Baylor, senior linebacker Ben Johnson and sophomore guard Zach Addie all suffered injuries. Their status for the Reynoldsburg game is uncertain.
Baylor has 23 receptions for 266 yards and three touchdowns and also has rushed for a score. Johnson has 52 tackles, including 11 for loss.
"Everything's new now," North coach Nate Hillerich said. "We play Reynoldsburg and it's our first (league) game, so we've got to be prepared to play because I think they're one of the top teams in central Ohio."
North has one of the area's top quarterbacks in senior Mike Lowery, who has completed 111 of 159 passes for 1,457 yards with 17 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Junior wide receiver Chris Scott has a team-best 32 receptions for 482 yards and five touchdowns, and Foster has 11 catches for 230 yards and two scores.
Sophomore running back Idris Lawrence leads in rushing with 191 yards and three scores.
Defensively, Reynoldsburg will counter with a front that includes seniors Dezman Cooper (18 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss), Jeremiah Burton (4.5 tackles for loss), Jay Amburgey (7 tackles for loss) and Ke'Shun Moorer (26 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss).
"(North is) the real deal, but we think Dez Cooper, Jeremiah Burton and Jay Amburgey are the real deal, too," White said.
Reynoldsburg junior quarterback Michael Whatley has completed 57 of 96 passes for 856 yards with eight touchdowns and six interceptions.
The Raiders have shown a committee look at running back, with senior J'Vonte Edwards rushing for 277 yards and two touchdowns, including 102 yards on 15 carries against South, and senior Guy Cowans-Wright gaining 211 yards with four scores on 40 carries. Junior Courtland Bullard has 176 yards on 26 carries, including 52 yards against South.
Senior Mershawn Rice, who has 16 receptions for 299 yards and four touchdowns, leads a wide receiver corps that also includes seniors Camby Goff and Princeton Hoskins and juniors Shon Strickland (11 catches, 196 yards, 2 TDs) and James Dean (11 catches, 150 yards, 1 TD).
"(Starting 5-0) means a whole lot for the program," Edwards said. "This shows how hard we've worked during the offseason and in practice. We just really want everyone to start noticing the changes in our program and prove to everyone that we have what it takes to compete for a championship.
"(Being) mentally tough and physically tough is what our coaches have been preaching to us since day one. We've been doing a pretty good job of that. If everyone takes care of their responsibilities on the field then we should have no problem in executing our game plan. The way that we practice this week is very important for this next matchup."