As the Hilliard Darby football team begins pursuit of its third consecutive playoff berth, coach John Santagata is embracing the latest -- and, for now, final -- installment of the Panthers' season-opening series against Olentangy.

"They are the kind of program that really makes you dot your 'I's and cross your 'T's because they present such a challenge," said Santagata, whose team plays host to the Braves on Friday, Aug. 30. "We saw them score quite a few points in a scrimmage against Lancaster (on Aug. 10), and that's who they are. They always have the ability to outscore anybody they play. They'll take chances, go for it on fourth down in their own territory. You have to be ready for anything."

Darby is coming off an 8-3 season that ended with a 42-20 loss at Clayton Northmont in the first round of the Division I, Region 3 playoffs. Olentangy went 5-6, shared the OCC-Buckeye Division championship with Olentangy Liberty and Olentangy Orange and made the postseason for the fifth consecutive year.

The Braves fell to Cincinnati Winton Woods 49-42 in a Division II, Region 8 first-round game.

Olentangy coach Mark Solis placed an increased emphasis on defense during the offseason, and thinks that unit will be tested right away by Darby's option-based offense.

"Darby will be a very good football team. They're very disciplined and they run an offense you just don't see week in and week out," Solis said. "We must be prepared for that. We have a lot of work to do to prepare for their personnel."

Darby defeated Olentangy 17-14 last year to earn its first win over the Braves in eight meetings. The Braves had defeated the Panthers 31-10 in 2016 and 45-24 in 2017.

While Darby returns only one starter on the offensive line in center Scott Hartline, a third-year starter, he will help protect third-year starting quarterback Jack Stultz and running backs Evan Grose, Connor Jones and Eric Williams. Jones rushed for 1,344 yards and nine touchdowns on 225 carries last year.

Darby linebackers Alex Briggs and Geno Sekura combined for 169 tackles last season, 14.5 of which were for loss.

"We had to replace a lot in our secondary, though, and that was a strength for us last year," Santagata said. "We're replacing most of our offensive line. We still have a lot work to do."

Olentangy also is replacing key players on offense. Trent Maddox succeeds 2019 graduate Connor Haag as starting quarterback, and the Braves also are replenishing their group of running backs with Nick Boyarko, Landon Johnson and Zach Kirshner, all three of whom also will play on defense.

"We have some serious weapons on our offense," Solis said "Our tight ends, Ethan Hand and Nathan Rudawsky, will see equal amounts of playing time. We'll rotate three running backs because they're all playing defense. We're good up front with a lot of returners."

This is the last year of the schools' current four-year deal.

Darby is scheduled to play Olentangy Orange in next year's opener, and Olentangy will face current OCC-Buckeye foe Westerville South.

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave