The Patriots have a lot to be thankful for this season, with a perfect 13-0 record to go with OCC and Region 2 championships topping the list.
Members of the Olentangy Liberty football team have something to be thankful for today, too: an opportunity.
All that stands between them and a trip to the Division I state championship game next week at Ohio Stadium is one team: Cleveland St. Ignatius. The Patriots will take on the Region 1 champion Wildcats (12-1) at Mansfield’s Arlin Stadium Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Liberty has plenty of people to thank for the run to a regional title and spot in the state semis — a push culminating in last week’s thrilling 24-20 win over Lorain — most notably the senior class.
“I think it’s the leadership of our senior class,” Liberty coach Steve Hale said of the key to the team’s deep playoff run. “We’ve played some crazy games and had some crazy situations, and they’ve fought through all of them.”
Senior Brendon White found the end zone from a yard out with 25 seconds to go, then converted a two-point conversion to Johnny Wiseman to seal a 30-29 comeback win over North Allegheny in the season opener in Pennsylvania.
The Patriots then rallied from a 13-3 halftime deficit to beat Cleveland Glenville 24-20 in Week 2.
Fast forward to Week 9, when senior A.J. Smith, third-string quarterback and starting kicker, connected with Wiseman in double overtime to sink Olentangy Orange 20-13. He threw a pair of touchdowns in the win, also finding senior Ben Rinsma for an 89-yard score to tie things up with 3:37 left in regulation.
The defense got the Patriots rolling in the postseason as senior Griffin Hughes’ pick six sparked his team’s second seven-point win over the Pioneers of the season — a 24-17 regional quarterfinal win three weeks ago in Powell.
It’s been quite a run. Now, though, the Patriots turn their attention to the Wildcats — a team Hale has a ton of respect for.
“What stands out about them is how well coached they are,” Hale said. “Chuck (coach Charles Kyle) has been doing this a long time … they come off the ball well, eye contact is fantastic and they don’t beat themselves.”
The Wildcats won a thriller last week at Bedford’s Bearcat Stadium, outlasting St. Edward, winner of the last two state titles, 38-31 in OT.
Mark Bobinski had 102 yards and a pair of TD runs in the win, including an eight-yard score in the first overtime.
Ignatius also has wins over Solon (31-17) and Massillon Jackson (35-0) this postseason.
Slowing down Bobinski and keeping senior quarterback Patrick Ryan from having a big game are musts for the Liberty defense. Offensively, the Patriots will have to keep tabs on the Wildcats’ solid trio of senior linebackers — Adam Shibley, John Velotta and James Leyden.
“We can’t turn the ball over … ball security is crucial,” Hale said. “We also need to make tackles. They don’t have a high-flying operation; they will try to be physical against us up front and we have to be ready for that.
“We just need to keep playing together. That’s the biggest thing. Week 1 (of the playoffs) we leaned on our defense, Week 2 our offense took off and last week everyone did what was needed to win.”
The winner of Friday’s game will face either Pickerington Central (12-1) or Cincinnati St. Xavier (8-5) in the D-I state championship. The Patriots are seeking their first state final appearance while the Wildcats are looking to return for the first time since winning it all in 2011.
Follow Ben Stroup on Twitter @delgazette_ben.