After reaching a Division I state semifinal in each of the past three seasons, the Olentangy Liberty football team continues to be one of the elite programs in central Ohio this fall.
With five convincing wins to begin the season, Westerville Central is looking to join that same elite company.
The teams will square off Friday, Oct. 4, at Central in their OCC-Buckeye Division opener.
"We've had some really good teams (and) we've seen a lot of really good players," said Liberty coach Steve Hale, whose team improved to 5-0 with a 21-14 win over previously unbeaten Groveport on Sept. 27. "We've got to know some guys who are going to play at the next level. We've had a pretty good schedule so far, but Westerville Central is a whole new animal. They're showing themselves as the best team in central Ohio.
"We're playing another undefeated team that has a lot of talent. It seems like they're exceptional, so we'll do the best we can just to hang with them."
Last season, Liberty went 4-1 in the league to share the title with Olentangy and Olentangy Orange. Central went 2-3, ahead of Westerville South (1-4) and Westerville North (0-5).
"Any time we go against Liberty, the thing that we expect is consistency," Central coach Brent Morrison said. "It's a team that's going to line up and do what they do. They've been doing it pretty well for the last couple of years. We don't expect a whole lot of changes.
"They seem to be a little more aggressive on defense. They have some different pressure schemes that we haven't seen before, so that will pose a new challenge for us."
Despite missing several key players because of injuries, the Patriots managed to defeat Groveport.
Making his first career start, quarterback Jackson Roberts completed 13 of 17 passes for 142 yards and three touchdowns.
"You can tell (Central) is an elite team. They're 5-0, just like we are," Roberts said. "They have some studs on that team, so we have to game plan well for them."
Roberts was playing in place of Corbin Parrish, who was out with an injury. Running back Aidan Kenley and two-way lineman Ben Wrather also sat out with injuries.
"As the games have gone forward, we've lost more guys and each person who has stepped in has done well," Roberts said. "If we keep doing that moving forward, we should be a tough team to beat."
Central has dominated each opponent, with its latest effort a 37-6 win over Gahanna on Sept. 27. Quarterback Judah Holtzclaw completed 17 of 23 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns, and Rickey Hyatt rushed for 94 yards and tossed a touchdown pass.
Myles Williamson added two touchdown receptions.
The Central defense has matched the offense's domination, as it has allowed just 16 yards rushing on 124 attempts. The Warhawks have outscored opponents 273-25.
All five games have included a running clock in the second half.
"We talk about it every day," defensive end Darius Madison said. "You have to keep the momentum up, set the tone every game. That also allows the offense to flourish if the defense comes out and sets the tone immediately. It allows us to be confident and that's one of the good things about our team."
The showdown also will have Region 3 playoff implications. Liberty was projected to be first this week with Central fourth.
The teams have met 11 times since both schools opened in 2003, with Liberty holding a 10-1 advantage. Central's win came in the first meeting, 35-26 in 2003.
"This is the only way to get ready for what happens in the playoffs," Hale said of his team's challenging schedule. "If there's anything the last three seasons have taught us, if you don't see this kind of talent on a regular basis, it will catch you off guard in that scenario."