On the same night that the Olentangy Liberty football team lost its starting quarterback and a college-caliber offensive lineman to injuries, senior linebacker Dylan Stevens went through an experience that could leave anyone feeling squeamish.
While trying to make a tackle Sept. 20 against Hilliard Davidson, Stevens was hit by a blocker and felt his left index finger snap. Then he hit the finger on the ground, looked up and saw it sticking sideways.
Although he missed the rest of the Patriots' 22-10 win over the Wildcats as well as a 21-14 victory over Groveport on Sept. 27, he refused to do anything but take the injury in stride.
"We call it 'the club,' which is the cast that I have to wear all the time," said Stevens, who often has his index and middle fingers taped together when he's not wearing the cast. "I think the club makes me better because it makes me get in a better position for tackling and setting edges."
Turning a negative situation into a positive has come to define the Patriots throughout a season that has had many successes in the midst of trials and tribulations.
In addition to losing senior offensive lineman and Northwestern commit Ben Wrather to a season-ending injury and senior quarterback Corbin Parrish to an injury that has kept him out since the Davidson game, several other injuries have cut into Liberty's depth.
Despite that adversity, the Patriots are 8-1 overall and 3-1 in the OCC-Buckeye Division after losing to Orange 10-7 on Oct. 25.
They close the regular season Friday, Nov. 1, at home against Westerville North, which fell to 1-8 overall and 0-4 in the league after losing to Olentangy 44-14 on Oct. 25.
Liberty, which already has clinched a first-round home playoff game in Division I, Region 3, has made three consecutive state semifinal appearances.
"We have a next-man-up mentality," senior linebacker Ben Cox said. "We've faced a lot of injuries this year, but all of the people on the bench are ready to go in. We know injuries are going to happen, so we're always prepared for them. That's why it hasn't affected us in our wins and losses. Everyone's prepared."
While Stevens is a strongside outside linebacker and Cox is a weakside outside linebacker, neither plays on offense despite having the necessary experience and skill set. Both were returning starters this fall.
Through eight games, Cox had 69 tackles and Stevens had 37 tackles and a team-leading six tackles for loss for a linebacker unit that has seen junior Miller Ridpath emerge into one of its leading tacklers. Junior Ryan Ritter and sophomore Brian Yamokoski also play key roles at outside linebacker.
Cox and Stevens help serve as the backbone for a linebacking corps that has been hit only minimally by injury.
"They're both captains, great leaders, great kids, good students and good people that have worked really hard," coach Steve Hale said. "They're not just defensive players, they're good for the team."
In a 37-20 victory over Westerville South on Oct. 11, junior defensive lineman Matthew Barrett returned an interception 65 yards for a touchdown to help seal the win. Ritter had a 46-yard interception return for a score in a 24-21 victory over Olentangy on Oct. 18.
The Patriots held Orange to 208 yards of offense, including just 56 rushing.
Through eight games, 11 defenders had at least 30 tackles.
The main thing the Patriots are concerned about is "getting better so we can get past Week 14 to get to Week 15," Cox said.
"I wouldn't say (this season has) really surprised us," Stevens said. "The past couple years we've had really good runs, and that's kind of the expectation. With all the adversity we've been facing it's been pretty good, but we can never be satisfied. Once teams get satisfied, that's when they lose and that's the whole part of our defense. We're going to keep grinding and keep going and be relentless no matter what. As a whole (the linebacking unit has) been doing pretty well. We're tough, but as a linebacker corps, we're nasty."