It's fitting in at least one way that the Pickerington Central football team will close what has been the greatest four-year run in program history against Cincinnati Elder in the Division I state championship game at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton.
The Tigers opened the 2016 season against Elder, holding off a late charge by the Panthers to win 20-14 at the University of Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium.
That started a period in which Central has gone 50-7, won the state championship in 2017, made state semifinal appearances in 2016 and last season and is making the program's fourth state final appearance this season.
"It was a good, hard-hitting, shoulder-pad-to-shoulder-pad game," coach Jay Sharrett said. "The game back in 2016 was brutal. It went deep into the fourth quarter and I believe this one will be the same way. I would be surprised if we don't stall each other out a little bit."
The high-caliber talent that both teams possess up front on both sides of the ball would seem to back up that assessment.
Central is 13-1 following a 28-21 victory over Mentor in a state semifinal Nov. 29 at Canton GlenOak. That same night, Elder improved to 12-2 with a 31-24 victory over Springfield in the other semifinal.
The Panthers might have an offensive line that's unmatched in the state, with Ohio State commit Jakob James and Louisville commit Luke Kandra each standing 6-foot-5, 285 pounds. Seniors Mason Berger (6-2, 250) and Carter Smith (6-3, 250) also provide size up front.
Add 6-5, 215-pound senior tight end and Ohio State commit Joe Royer, and it figures to be a night full of challenges for a Central defense that includes senior Dawite Melesse (53 tackles, 7 tackles for loss) and sophomore Tyler Gillison (101 tackles) on the line and seniors Dom Marasco (167 tackles) and Ty Hamilton (111 tackles), junior William Dukes IV (132 tackles) and sophomore C.J. Doggette (86 tackles) at linebacker.
Elder senior quarterback Matthew Luebbe has completed 156 of 241 passes for 2,064 yards with 18 touchdowns and has rushed 134 times for 1,099 yards and 11 scores.
Royer has 51 receptions for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns and sophomore wide receiver Drew Ramsey, the son of Panthers coach Doug Ramsey, has 41 catches for 445 yards and five scores.
Doug Ramsey has a 189-83 record in 23 seasons at Elder, guiding the Panthers to Division I state titles in 2002 and '03 and a 24-10 win over Central in a state semifinal in 2008.
He is hopeful his team's possible advantage up front isn't neutralized by what he sees as an underrated Central secondary.
Marasco and junior safety Garner Wallace both have three interceptions and junior cornerback Lorenzo Styles and senior cornerback Arsahn Williams both have two interceptions for a Central defense that has picked off 14 passes overall.
Juniors William Dukes IV and A.J. Sanders both have returned interceptions for touchdowns, while juniors Sirron Smith and Gavin Edwards also have contributed in the secondary.
"Up front, (Central does) a great job in coaching, gives you a lot of looks and has really good players," coach Ramsey said. "We played them in the first game of the season in 2016 and played them in a state semifinal in 2008 and those were two of the most physical games we've played.
"We play a lot of good teams, but they might be the best man-coverage team we've seen, so that really helps their guys up front. They've got a good mix of being good up front and also being good in the secondary."
Central senior quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw, who starred in 2017 when the Tigers beat Mentor 56-28 to win their first state title after losing in state finals in 2006 and '11, rushed for 121 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries in the rematch with the Cardinals on Nov. 29.
On the season, Crenshaw has rushed for 1,205 yards and 17 touchdowns and has completed 110 of 151 passes for 1,496 yards with 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Junior running back Nick Mosley has rushed 225 times for 1,394 yards and 22 touchdowns and Styles is the team's leading receiver with 39 catches for 500 yards and five scores.
Senior defensive backs Colton Sandhas (88 tackles), Nicholas Seger (2 interceptions) and Ben Deters (2 interceptions), senior linebacker/lineman Connor Keyes (68 tackles) and senior linebacker Tanner Perdue (36 tackles) have led the way for an Elder defense that has given up an average of 21.5 points during the playoffs.
The Panthers' only losses came against Lakewood St. Edward (42-25 on Sept. 21), a Division I regional runner-up, and Cincinnati La Salle (27-25 on Nov. 1), which is playing for the Division II state title Thursday, Dec. 5.
"Us being there two years ago in 2017 has helped us, from doing an itinerary to understanding what state championship game week is like," said Sharrett, who is 178-35 in 17 seasons with the Tigers. "A lot of those guys played in the state championship game two years ago and are used to making long runs. With Elder and all the tradition they have, it should be a great state championship game."