Getting caught up in the emotions that could come into play when the Gahanna Lincoln High School football team plays host to Pickerington North on Friday, Oct. 26, is something that both know is not in their best interests.
During the offseason, Jarrod Pruiett left his position as an assistant coach with the Lions to become co-offensive coordinator for the Panthers and senior quarterback Mike Lowery and his brother, sophomore Jordan Lowery, transferred from Gahanna to North.
The Lions made the playoffs last season with Mike Lowery at quarterback, and Jordan Lowery likely would have been among Gahanna's leading receivers this season. The Lions' offense has endured ups and downs without the duo this fall.
While the Lowery brothers have settled in at North and Gahanna has moved on, both teams are approaching the matchup with the idea that there is too much on the line to dwell on those relationships.
The Lions are expected to clinch a Division I, Region 2 playoff berth with a victory, and a first-round home playoff game also could be gained.
The Panthers' postseason hopes, meanwhile, also remain alive.
While Gahanna is 5-4 overall and 2-2 in the OCC-Ohio Division and was projected to be third in its region, North is 5-4 overall and 1-3 in the league but was projected to be 11th in Division I, Region 3, three spots shy of a playoff berth.
The Panthers must win and get help from other teams to extend their season.
"Obviously, it's a big game," Lions coach Bruce Ward said. "For us, it's a bigger game, not for it being a coach and former player being there, but just the fact that it puts us in a winning season and gives us momentum heading into the playoffs. It'll be senior night, so there's a lot of other things that go into it. Our focus is to handle that side of it. It's going to be an emotional game for our seniors and the last time they'll possibly be on this field."
North's offense has shown explosiveness with Mike Lowery having completed 183 of 284 passes for 2,241 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions and wide receivers Chris Scott (48 catches for 746 yards, 9 TDs) and Jaylon Baylor (39 catches for 418 yards, 4 TDs) and tight end Tyler Foster (29 catches for 464 yards, 5 TDs) also playing key roles. Jordan Lowery has 21 receptions for 247 yards and four scores as well.
Still, during a 35-21 loss to Lancaster on Oct. 19, Mike Lowery was intercepted twice and North committed three turnovers overall.
The Panthers also had two turnovers and 85 yards in penalties in a 33-31 loss to Reynoldsburg on Sept. 28.
"We were up 11 (on Lancaster), and I think we had them third-and-15, and then we gave up a huge pass in the second quarter," North coach Nate Hillerich said. "It was one of those things where we had scored the first three times we had the ball, but we turned it over (three times). ... The games we've lost, we've lost the turnover battle by two or more in each of those games."
Defense, meanwhile, has been the Lions' strength.
With a unit led by linebackers David Williams, Zajdi Hoxha, Percy King and Travis Whittaker, Gahanna beat Reynoldsburg 10-7 on Oct. 5 and put together performances that didn't disappoint Ward in losses to Pickerington Central (27-13 on Sept. 27) and Lancaster (31-14 on Oct. 12).
The Lions are coming off a 62-6 victory over Grove City on Oct. 19.
"(North is) loaded," Ward said. "We know Mike (Lowery) and how well he can throw the ball, so their pass game is efficient and good. We've got to put pressure on Mike and make him uncomfortable in the pocket and make him throw some bad balls. Hopefully, the back end of our defense plays well. We've got to be able to stop the pass and make them run.
"It's Week 10 in Ohio football, so everybody's beat up, but for the most part, the back end of our defense is pretty healthy. Our defense has been playing well throughout the year, even in some of our losses."
In the win over Grove City, quarterback Will Thomas completed six of nine passes for 53 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown to Cam Morris, and rushed for 39 yards and one score.
Running back Justus Harris had 177 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 15 carries against the Dawgs and has 775 yards and seven touchdowns on 125 carries on the season.
Whittaker also has been a key running back for the Lions.
North's defense has been led by linebacker Ben Johnson (78 tackles, 14 tackles for loss) and linemen Jack Sawyer (51 tackles, 14 tackles for loss) and Dante Reed (45 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss).
"With some of the things that have happened in our region, we've still got a shot (at the playoffs)," Hillerich said. "There's five teams ahead of us, and we need three of them to lose.
"(Harris) is a really good player, dynamic. He's smaller but is a really physical runner. Their quarterback runs well and, defensively, they play really good defense. They're sound. Our focus is on just treating it as you would any other game and don't get caught up in the hype and emotions."