The Hilliard Darby High School football team is in the postseason for the second consecutive season and for the sixth time in seven years.
The seventh-seeded Panthers will visit second-seeded Clayton Northmont in the first round of the Division I, Region 3 playoffs Friday, Nov. 2.
The winner plays third-seeded Hilliard Bradley or sixth-seeded Pickerington Central in a regional semifinal Nov. 9.
Darby qualified for the playoffs by beating Dublin Scioto 13-11 in its regular-season finale Oct. 26 to improve to 8-2. The Panthers are averaging 16.6 points per game and allowing 13.8.
Northmont is 9-1 and one of seven Greater Western Ohio Conference teams to make the playoffs. The Thunderbolts have won their last five games after losing 49-20 to Huber Heights Wayne on Sept. 21.
"Like all playoff teams, they have a lot of talent, speed and athleticism, but they are also big and very physical at the same time," Darby coach John Santagata said. "They've got two or three guys who are Division I (college) commitments and they have some younger guys that will be in the next year or two. In my 11 years as coach here, we've had one player go (Division I), so it's quite a team they have."
The Thunderbolts are averaging 34.6 points per game and allowing 17.4.
Northmont is led defensively by linebacker Jestin Jacobs (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), tackle Bryan Heywood (6-1, 240), end Gabe Newburg (6-5, 230) and cornerbacks Danny Lewis (6-0, 170) and Drake Hickman (5-8, 160). Jacobs has committed to Iowa and Newburg has committed to Michigan State.
"We need to be sound and efficient on offense and control the football," Santagata said. "For us to have success, we have to limit their explosiveness on offensive and in special teams, and the one way we know how to do that best is limit their chances by sustaining drives. We have to find a way to establish our running game against a very big and physical defense."
On offense, the Thunderbolts' ground game is led by tailback Mike Franklin and fullback Savonne Cvetnic. Other key players include quarterback Miles Johnson and receivers Justin Golson, Jazz Keys, Lewis and Hickman.
"They have a pocket passer and can hit you for a long gain at any moment," Santagata said. "They have a big, physical offensive line that gives (Johnson) time to throw and they like to establish deep shots to good athletes. Our goal defensively is to make them work the field and take away their big plays.
"They've made a number of big plays in the punt return and kickoff return, so we also need to be on point in special teams."
Darby survived two late scoring opportunities by Scioto to reach the playoffs and finish 6-1 in the OCC-Cardinal Division. Griffin Crosa, who had made a 46-yard field goal earlier in the game, hit the left goal post on a 22-yard attempt with 4 minutes 23 seconds remaining.
Then, with six seconds left, Scioto quarterback Kyron Rogers had the wet ball slip out of his hands as he attempted to spike the ball at the Darby 24 to set up a 41-yard field-goal attempt by Crosa.
"Everyone told us the Scioto game was an exciting finish, but what they don't understand is that it was nearly a defibrillator finish," Santagata said. "We were fortunate enough to get through the finish and now we need to make the most of our opportunity."
The Panthers forced four turnovers against the Irish. Linebacker Nick Wile recovered two fumbles and made 12 tackles, linebacker Alex Briggs had 10 tackles, cornerback Jaden Jones had an interception and four passes defensed and cornerback Ryan Morbitzer had five tackles and two pass breakups.
Fullback Connor Jones rushed for 86 yards on 20 carries and quarterback Jack Stultz had 81 yards rushing on 20 carries.