Shortly after his team earned perhaps its biggest win in program history Nov. 15, Groveport Madison football coach Bryan Schoonover asked who had won the Division I, Region 3 semifinal that night between second-seeded Pickerington Central and third-seeded Olentangy Orange.
He couldn't help but laugh after being told that the Tigers had won 44-0 at Upper Arlington to set up a rematch between the fourth-seeded Cruisers and Central on Friday, Nov. 22, at DeSales with the regional championship on the line.
"We said this year it's never going to be easy," Schoonover said. "That's an unbelievable program over (at Central). I've got a lot of respect for those guys over there. I've got some friends on (Central's) staff and they do a great job. It's going to be another challenge for us."
The Cruisers, who defeated top-seeded Olentangy Liberty 13-7 in a regional semifinal Nov. 15 at Gahanna to improve to 10-2, ended a 28-game losing streak against Central with a 19-14 win Sept. 20.
While Groveport is in a regional final for the first time, the second-seeded Tigers have won three consecutive regional titles, including last season when they lost to Cincinnati Colerain 28-14 in a state semifinal.
Central is 11-1 and has won eight consecutive games since losing to Groveport.
The regional champion advances to a state semifinal Nov. 29 against an opponent to be determined. The other regional finals Nov. 22 pit Mentor against Lakewood St. Edward, Springfield against Dublin Coffman and Cincinnati Elder against Colerain.
On Sept. 20, the Tigers led 14-10 but the Cruisers' Jasiyah Robinson blocked a punt to give his team the ball at the Central 2-yard line. Groveport settled for a 23-yard field goal by Austin Snyder to make it 14-13, but got the winning score on a 19-yard run by Emmanuel Anthony with 1 minute, 54 remaining.
"It's been a goal to get (to a regional final) and it just adds a lot more excitement that we're playing Groveport," Tigers running back Nick Mosley said. "We knew all season that it's likely that we'd play them again."
Against Liberty, Groveport's Jalil Underdown ran for a 4-yard touchdown in the first quarter and Anthony ran for a 2-yard score in the fourth quarter as the Cruisers avenged a 21-14 loss to the Patriots on Sept. 27.
"They beat us in the regular season, so we knew it was revenge week," Robinson said. "We came out and we knew what we had to do and just got it done. We stopped the run real well. ... It's really special. It's the best season we've ever had here and the most wins we've ever had. It hasn't clicked in yet, but it feels amazing."
Groveport limited Liberty to 33 yards rushing and will need its defense to put together another stout performance in the regional final considering the abilities of Mosley and Central quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw, who was named district Offensive Player of the Year.
Mosley rushed for 193 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries against Orange.
The Tigers, who were held to 82 yards rushing by Groveport on Sept. 20, led the Pioneers 30-0 at halftime.
Linebacker William Dukes returned an interception 32 yards for a touchdown on Orange's first play from scrimmage to set the tone.
The Tigers faced the Pioneers without right guard Garrett Meek, who was replaced by Kyle Imboden.
Groveport wide receiver Ryan Burke suffered an injury against Liberty that likely will keep him out of the regional final, according to Schoonover.
"It's just been a lot of hard work from these kids and I'm excited for them," Schoonover said.
"Across the board from the coaching staff to the players, they've just locked in and done well. I'm just so happy for these kids."