Olentangy Liberty High School football coach Steve Hale let himself relax with about a minute left in the Patriots’ 21-7 win over Dublin Coffman in the Division I, Region 2 final Nov. 16 at New Albany, clenching his right fist in celebration as he looked both to his players and the fans.
A few minutes later, Hale flashed a wide smile once the Patriots mobbed each other in celebration as they hoisted their third consecutive regional championship trophy.
“When you get this much reward for putting this time in, it does bring a huge smile to your face to see those kids rewarded for their efforts,” Hale said. “It’d be silly to think our experience (in the playoffs) doesn’t help some. The locker room was calm before the game. It was calm at halftime. I don’t think any voice was raised above conversation (level) the entire time we were in there at halftime. We just go about our business. We have a blue-collar work ethic in a town that really isn’t that.”
Having leaned largely on their defense to survive the region despite being seeded fourth, the Patriots will try to achieve a program first Friday, Nov. 23, against Lakewood St. Edward in a state semifinal at Arlin Field in Mansfield. Liberty has lost at that stage on that field each of the past two seasons, 27-21 to Mentor last year and 24-14 to Cleveland St. Ignatius in 2016.
Against second-seeded Coffman, Patriots defensive back Grant Wilson intercepted Ethan Brown twice in the second half. Those set up two 2-yard touchdown runs by quarterback Mitchell Okuley, who also scored from 7 yards out in the final seconds of the first quarter.
Okuley completed 13 of 17 passes for 172 yards and rushed for 66 yards on 14 carries.
Liberty, which is 9-4, has given up only two touchdowns in the postseason. The Patriots beat fifth-seeded Gahanna 14-7 in the first round Nov. 2 and benefited from four turnovers to defeat top-seeded Reynoldsburg 10-0 in a semifinal Nov. 9.
“We work harder than anybody. We deserve this,” Wilson said. “We studied (Coffman’s) film, made sure we knew every scheme they had and gave ourselves a chance to succeed. We love practice. We get after it every day.”
St. Edward thrived off its run game and a stingy defense in a 24-14 win over Mentor in the Region 1 final Nov. 16. While running back Jordan Castleberry and quarterback Garrett Dzuro rushed for 137 and 106 yards, respectively, the Eagles held the Cardinals to 65 yards on the ground.
At 9-3, the Eagles have won nine of 10 games since starting 0-2, including a 42-39 season-opening loss to Mentor on Aug. 24.
Liberty lost its only previous meeting with St. Edward, 41-12 in a Region 1 second-round game in 2014 at Arlin Field.
The winner will play Cincinnati Colerain or Pickerington Central in the state final on a date to be determined at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
“This (regional title) means a lot to me and this team. Hopefully we can get past the semifinal and get to the championship,” Okuley said. “The extra playoff experience really helps us. Everybody is calm playing the game. Nobody gets nervous.”