The Pickerington North football team has navigated one of the area's toughest schedules well enough to put itself in control of its Division I, Region 3 playoff hopes entering Week 10.
On Friday, Nov. 1, the host Panthers must beat an opponent whose schedule has been even tougher in Gahanna to secure their sixth postseason berth.
North's first nine opponents are a combined 51-29 and the Lions' first nine are a combined 52-28. Two of the Panthers' opponents already have clinched playoff berths, while the Lions defeated a team that's in the playoff hunt in Reynoldsburg, 29-28 on Oct. 11.
North is 5-4 overall and 3-1 in the OCC-Ohio Division, while Gahanna is 3-6 and 3-1. The winner earns at least a runner-up finish in the league. Pickerington Central sits atop the league at 4-0 entering its game against Grove City on Nov. 1.
"We played a tough schedule as well, and you look at the teams we've played, I think (Gahanna is) as good talent-wise as some of the teams that are (going to finish) 8-2," Panthers coach Nate Hillerich said. "It's a team that can play with anyone and they've got a little momentum going now. It's the last game of the (regular season). Week 10 is always interesting because you don't know what you're going to get from a team."
North bounced back from a 16-7 loss to Central on Oct. 18 to beat Lancaster 42-14 on Oct. 25. The Panthers built a 21-0 lead, including a 91-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jack Sawyer to Chris Scott midway through the first quarter, and finished with 386 total yards.
Scott had six receptions for 191 yards and four touchdowns and added 27 yards rushing, with Sawyer completing eight of 10 passes for 224 yards.
The Panthers played without defensive tackle Lawson Vaughn and linebacker Cole Johnson because of injury, but both are expected to play against Gahanna.
Defensive lineman Elijah Hawk returned to action for North after missing the previous three games. Hawk, a junior who transferred from Groveport, originally was deemed eligible for only the first five games but recently got cleared by the OHSAA to play the entire season.
Sawyer played only two defensive series against Lancaster but produced one sack and one tackle for loss.
The Panthers' defense will face a Gahanna offense led by senior running back Travis Whittaker, who rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown in a 41-7 win over Grove City on Oct. 25 and has 1,042 yards rushing and eight scores on 176 carries for the season.
Lions quarterback Will Thomas has completed 120 of 232 passes for 1,652 yards with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions and has rushed for three scores. He completed 11 of 16 passes for 203 yards with four touchdowns against the Dawgs.
"Their quarterback is a really good player, their running back is dangerous and they've got a lot of good receivers," Hillerich said. "Their quarterback is big and tough to bring down, so they're a challenge to stop."
The Lions, who made the playoffs four of the past five seasons but will come up short of the postseason this year, have shown signs of improvement defensively in recent weeks.
Gahanna limited Grove City to 185 total yards, with Max Giuliani having an interception and a tackle for loss and Mason Weber finishing with six tackles.
"We just finally put it together," Lions coach Bruce Ward said. "Regardless of our record, these kids have never quit. We've fought hard every game. We scored points in the third quarter (of a 49-28 loss to Central on Oct. 4), so our kids have been fighting. Obviously, our opponents have a lot to do with (our record), but we haven't put four quarters together until (the win over Reynoldsburg)."