The Olentangy Liberty football team will play host to Pickerington North on Friday, Aug. 30, in a series that is tied at two wins apiece.

The stakes have changed slightly, though, in what represents the season opener for the Patriots and Panthers for the second year in a row and the fourth consecutive season in which the teams have met.

The past three seasons, North was in Division I, Region 3 and Liberty was in Division I, Region 2.

The latest alignment by the OHSAA now has the programs both in Region 3, and considering the potential difficulties in each team's schedule, that makes what happens in this matchup one to keep an eye on.

Liberty was a state semifinalist for the third consecutive year and finished 9-5 last fall, but one of its losses came against the Panthers (17-0).

North is coming off a 6-4 finish following a 2017 season in which it blew out the Patriots 42-0 on its way to a 10-3 finish.

There are eight teams on the Panthers' schedule that made the playoffs last year and five on the Patriots' schedule that were in the postseason, not including North, which settled for 10th in Region 3.

"They're in our region now, so you talk about big-time playoff implications right off the start," third-year Panthers coach Nate Hillerich said. "They're really big up front. They (lost) a lot of skill players, but they reload those guys. They're really disciplined and do a great job on defense."

Liberty lost three-year starting quarterback Mitchell Okuley among a 33-player graduating class but has 102 players in grades 10-12, including a pair of college recruits on the offensive line in Ben Wrather (Northwestern) and Tyus Thompson (Saginaw Valley State).

Also returning are junior running back Aidan Kenley, who scored four touchdowns and rushed for 1,044 yards last season, and senior wide receiver Kyle Wilson, who had 37 receptions a year ago.

Defensively, North is anchored by junior lineman Jack Sawyer, an Ohio State commit who had 15 tackles for loss last season and is about to begin his third season as a starter. Seniors Lawson Vaughn and Trent Robinson also are returnees on the line, with senior Colby Baker likely leading the linebacker corps.

"We put challenging teams on our schedule for a reason," Liberty coach Steve Hale said. "We open with North and then we play (Huber Heights) Wayne (Sept. 6), Cleveland Glenville (Sept. 13) and then we go to (Hilliard) Davidson (Sept. 20). We want to put our kids in adverse situations against playoff-level teams with either great size or speed, or great coaching."

North could have the area's top returning wide receiver in senior Chris Scott, who had 52 receptions for 793 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and holds scholarship offers from a list of schools that includes Cincinnati, Kentucky and Michigan.

At least to begin the season, the Panthers are expected to go with junior Gio Thomas at quarterback.

He threw for 1,887 yards and 22 touchdowns for Washington Court House last fall and transferred to North during the offseason, but it's unclear whether he'll be available for the entire season or for just the first five games. Senior Dom Myers also is an option at quarterback after North lost Mike Lowery, who is now playing for Mercyhurst, to graduation.

Defensively, seniors Tyson Chapman, Ben Cox and Dylan Stevens lead a linebacker unit that should be among Liberty's biggest strengths.

"Obviously, (North is) going to be great competition," Stevens said. "It'll be a high-intensity game and should be very fun getting to go against those guys. We're physical and we're looking at being more efficient than last year. We have a lot of young guys that are stepping up and we're ready to get out there and start hitting."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

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