Whether it was a compliment or intuition, or both, Olentangy Liberty football coach Steve Hale had a gut feeling Sept. 27 after the Patriots pulled off a hard-fought 21-14 win over Groveport Madison.
"That is a very good football team and we realize we could see them again at some point," said Hale, whose team was missing eight starters that night, including running back Aidan Kenley and quarterback Korbin Parrish, because of injuries.
Seven weeks later, Hale has been proven correct.
Coming off a 14-7 home win over eighth-seeded Westerville Central in a Division I, Region 3 first-round game Nov. 8, the top-seeded Patriots will take on the fourth-seeded Cruisers in a regional semifinal Friday, Nov. 15, at Gahanna.
Groveport comes in at 9-2 after an 18-17 comeback win over fifth-seeded Hilliard Davidson in the first round Nov. 8 at home. The Cruisers were held to 28 yards of offense, all on the ground, in the first half and gave up a fumble return and a 58-yard pass for touchdowns in the fourth quarter before scoring all of their points in the final 4 minutes, 36 seconds.
Slotback Jalil Underdown ran for touchdowns of 4 and 95 yards on consecutive possessions and after the Cruisers recovered an onside kick, quarterback Colin Rice threw the game-winning touchdown to tight end R'rion Cobb from four yards out with 19.9 seconds left.
It was just the second catch of the year for Cobb and his first since a 16-yard reception in the second quarter against Liberty, which is 10-1.
The win was Groveport's second in the postseason and first since its previous playoff appearance in 2007.
"It's one of those games you look back on and think, 'Did that really happen?'" Cruisers coach Bryan Schoonover said. "We kept our confidence, kept fighting and found a way to get it done."
Liberty is 13-11 all-time in the playoffs and is in the postseason for the sixth year in a row.
Against Central, Parrish, who had missed the previous six games because of a torn knee ligament, threw the game-winning 74-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Rausch with 2:38 left.
"This is nothing new to them. They're used to playing late in the postseason," Schoonover said of Liberty. "It's kind of fun to get to play them again. The kids are excited. (Parrish) is back now and he's a kid that can make plays from all over the field. They're well-disciplined and well-coached. We'd better be ready."
The Patriots' familiarity with their postseason opponents is a difference from recent seasons, given that they are in central Ohio-dominated Region 3 rather than Region 2, which encompasses some of central Ohio and all of the northwestern part of the state.
"This is a little different playing teams in our own (league) and teams from central Ohio," Hale said. "(Groveport is) incredibly talented and this will be a great challenge for us. We get another great challenge and we get to face some great athletes again."
Hale was 8-12 as Groveport's coach in 2000 and 2001. He went to Liberty when the school opened in 2003 and has been the program's only head coach.
The semifinal winner plays second-seeded Pickerington Central or third-seeded Olentangy Orange in the regional final Nov. 22 at a neutral site.