There certainly will be some familiarity for the host Olentangy Orange and Pickerington North football teams when they meet in the first round of the Division I, Region 3 playoffs Friday, Nov. 8, considering they faced each other less than two months ago.
Both teams, though, have had their identities reshaped since the Pioneers lost to the Panthers 38-17 on Sept. 13.
That was the only win for North during a 1-3 start that included losses to three eventual playoff qualifiers. It also marked the Panthers' first game with junior Jack Sawyer as starting quarterback.
Orange, meanwhile, struggled to win its first two games and then gave up a season-high point total to North before raising its level of play, particularly on defense.
The third-seeded Pioneers are 9-1 and riding a seven-game winning streak, while the sixth-seeded Panthers are 6-4 and have won five of their last six games.
The winner plays fourth-seeded Groveport or fifth-seeded Hilliard Davidson in a regional semifinal Nov. 15 at a neutral site.
"(The first matchup) was the first time that Sawyer played quarterback for them at the start of the game," Orange coach Zebb Schroeder said. "Their quarterback (Dom Myers) had gotten banged up, so they put their money on (Sawyer), which is a smart move since he's (one of the top 2021 recruits at defensive end) in the country. I think our kids were maybe a little surprised because he's a load. Now he's so much more polished running the offense and running the quarterback-read."
Sawyer threw for 60 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 135 yards and three scores against the Pioneers.
"As a program, we understand the compatible alignment football we have to play," Schroeder said. "We make decisions on offense and play on special teams to help the defense. We just want to play a really concentrated field-position game. Turnovers are paramount in our mind, so our defense is trying to take (the ball) away and our offense is trying to hold on to it at all costs."
Orange completed a 5-0 run through the OCC-Buckeye Division with a 42-24 victory over Westerville South on Nov. 1 to win the league championship.
Quarterback Spencer Hawkins threw for 218 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for two scores and Jake Vanchieri had 151 yards rushing and two touchdowns against the Wildcats, who were one of four consecutive playoff teams the Pioneers defeated to close the regular season.
On the season, Vanchieri has 878 yards rushing and nine touchdowns on 175 carries and Hawkins is 127-for-226 passing for 1,660 yards with 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
Sam Wyne had seven catches for 88 yards and a touchdown against South and is one of three players with more than 30 receptions along with Caden Konczak and Zane Lattig.
On the season, Sawyer is 71-for-124 passing for 977 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions and has rushed for 361 yards and six scores on 75 carries, while wide receiver Chris Scott has 57 receptions for 845 yards and nine touchdowns.
Schroeder called Scott one of the best receivers he's seen in recent years.
North's running game also has improved significantly in recent weeks even with No. 1 back Idris Lawrence battling injuries.
Lawrence had 84 yards and a touchdown on 21 rushes against Orange and has 635 yards and seven touchdowns on 167 carries on the season, but he did not play the final two games of the regular season.
Freshman Dawaun Green stepped in to rush 25 times for 137 yards in a 21-9 win over Gahanna on Nov. 1 as North secured second place in the OCC-Ohio at 4-1. He has 296 yards rushing on 50 carries on the season.
Lawrence could return for the playoff opener. The Panthers also hope to return one of their top defensive players, junior linebacker Cole Johnson, from injury after he sat out against the Lions.
"We just kind of found out who we are and that we could be more physical than teams," North coach Nate Hillerich said.
"It's huge (to be in the playoffs). I'm just proud of our seniors and our team. We're just excited to be in. A new season starts and everybody is good when you get to this point."
Orange is in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year and sixth time overall, but it hasn't won a playoff game since 2009 when it competed in Division II, Region 7. The Pioneers lost in the first round of the playoffs each of the past three seasons, including last year when they fell to Toledo Whitmer 20-17 in Region 2.
North also is in for the sixth time, including for the second time in three seasons under Hillerich. The Panthers are 7-5 in the postseason all-time, including earning a Division I, Region 3 runner-up finish in 2017 before finishing 6-4 and falling short of the playoffs last season.
"No. 1, we have to do a much better job of tackling Sawyer in the open field," Schroeder said.
"And we've got to score points. We're not going to hold them to a one-score game, so we've got to match that offensively.
"Starting with (Oct. 11 when we beat) Olentangy (28-14), we've had four straight weeks of head-banger football games and a lot of emotions and hard prep. You're playing a playoff team every week, so I was worried last week if our kids were going to let their foot off the gas. They answered the bell."