The Olentangy Orange High School football team has battled through 10 weeks of the regular season. Now, coach Zebb Schroeder is asking for more.
The sixth-seeded Pioneers will visit third-seeded Toledo Whitmer on Friday, Nov. 2, for a first-round playoff contest in Division I, Region 2.
"Our guys are confident and ready, but can they find that next gear?" said Schroeder, whose team is 7-3 overall heading into its showdown with the 8-2 Panthers. "Can they have the same enthusiasm to get ready? Anyone can get up for Friday night, but we need to have the same passion for midweek practices that we have had all year. Our kids love being together and practicing, and that fires you up as a coach."
The Pioneers will be making their third consecutive playoff appearance. They lost at Liberty 24-17 in the opening round in 2016 and lost a 38-37 overtime contest to visiting Gahanna last fall in the first round.
"Having the experience of starting in a big game like (this) gives me a little less pressure," said senior Robbie Dayhuff, who started at defensive back last season and now starts at quarterback. "We have to be able to finish in the big games."
The Panthers have been led by junior quarterback Riley Keller, who had completed 110 of 195 passes for 1,565 yards and 14 touchdowns through nine games. His top targets have been Dalan Layton (41 catches, 440 yards), Michael Varanese (17 catches, 242 yards) and Zach Walling (15 catches, 306 yards).
"They run a spread offense, and the first thing that you notice is their quarterback," Schroeder said. "He's a Big Ten-caliber recruit who is athletic, has a really strong arm and is a difference-maker. He can put the ball in a pickle barrel at a really good velocity."
Kobie Myers led the running attack with 437 yards and seven touchdowns on 105 carries, and Drew Mauder had 266 yards on 53 carries.
Whitmer's 4-3 defense has been led by senior tackle Cavon Butler, who has committed to Kentucky.
"The strength of their defense is the line and they have some good linebackers," Schroeder said. "They play a lot of man coverage and their defensive backs are pretty active."
The winner plays second-seeded Dublin Coffman or seventh-seeded Westerville Central on Nov. 9 in a regional semifinal.
The Pioneers clinched a share of the OCC-Buckeye Division championship with a 17-0 win over Westerville South on Oct. 26. They tied Liberty and Olentangy at 4-1 for their first league title since winning the OCC-Capital in 2011.
"It was kind of the next step for us," Schroeder said. "We made the playoffs for the last two seasons and now it was time to win the league. I'm happy for everyone, especially the seniors, because of the hard work they have put in."
Jake Vanchieri rushed for 135 yards and one touchdown on 31 carries, and Dayhuff added 75 yards and one score on 21 carries.
Mason Faulkner, Zach Harrison and Zach Hill all had 6.5 tackles to lead the defense, and Ethan Adkins had an interception.