Olentangy Liberty running back Jake Struck returns after rushing for 773 yards and seven touchdowns a season ago.

Gazette | File

Olentangy Liberty didn’t get off to the best start a season ago, but, it’s not how you start, but how you finish that matters most … and boy did the Patriots finish.

After starting 0-3 with losses to perennial powers Pickerington Central, Cleveland Glenville and Cincinnati St. Xavier, Liberty won five of its next six games. Then, after falling to Olentangy Orange in the regular-season finale, the Patriots went on to win three straight playoff games before falling to Springfield in a Division I regional final.

If anything, first-year head coach John Sansbury said last season highlighted the importance of steady improvements.

“The biggest takeaway we learned last year was to focus on getting better every day,” he said. “Our seniors did a great job of that, so by the time Week 11 came around, we were playing our best football. We’ve continued to focus on that all summer.”

Sansbury, who was handed the keys to the program after Steve Hale hung up the whistle following last season’s ridiculous playoff push, is the Patriots’ first head coach not named Hale since, well, forever.

He has some pretty big shoes to fill — Hale finished with a record of 154-76, took 15 teams to the playoffs, captured eight league championships and three Division I regional titles — but knows what it takes to fill them. He played under Hale before graduating as a member of the school’s first graduating class in 2005.

He also coached with Hale, working his way up from an assistant coach for the freshman team to defensive coordinator at the varsity level, where he served most recently.

“Every year is different,” Sansbury said. “There will be different players and leaders. We will continue to be a team that plays very hard and does things the right way, as consistently as possible, like we’ve been in the past. Coach Hale built a great program with Liberty football — I’ve learned a lot and will do my best to continue to improve it.”

Key returners on the offensive side of the ball include quarterback Andrew Leonard, running back Jake Struck, receivers Evan Nelson and Wilson Roberts and linemen Bailey Byrd, Deacon Billy and Alex Conley.

Leonard thew for 2,596 yards and 20 touchdowns last year, his first as a starter, while Nelson had 53 receptions for 600 yards and six TDs and Struck rushed for 773 yards and seven scores.

Defensively, Linebacker Cam Cole returns to the fold, as do linemen Jacob Biros and Landon Hunter. Byrd will also play on the defensive line.

“These guys all contributed and played a lot last season,” Sansbury said, “and we will be counting on them and their leadership this season.”

The Patriots, per usual, have a loaded schedule. They open with the same two opponents as last season — Pickerington Central and Glenville, both at home — then replaces St. Xavier with another powerhouse in Gahanna Lincoln in Week 3. Liberty rounds out its non-league slate with a home game against Olentangy Berlin and a road showdown against New Albany before opening OCC-Central play Sept. 22 against host Dublin Coffman.

“We have a very tough schedule … and league,” Sansbury said. “Every week is a tough opponent. We will have to practice hard and bring our best effort every single week.”

2022 Results

(8-6, 3-2 OCC-Central)

Aug. 19 — @ Pickerington Central, L, 42-0

Aug. 26 — vs. Glenville, L, 20-14

Sept. 2 — @ St. Xavier, L, 45-21

Sept. 9 — @ Olentangy Berlin, W, 21-17

Sept. 16 — vs. New Albany, W, 27-0

Sept. 23 — vs. Dublin Coffman, L, 14-9

Sept. 30 — @ Upper Arlington, W, 28-27

Oct. 7 — vs. Hilliard Bradley, W, 28-14

Oct. 14 — vs. Hilliard Davidson, W, 21-18

Oct. 21 — @ Olentangy Orange, L, 23-7

Oct. 28 — vs. Toledo Whitmer, W, 20-7 (OHSAA Division I playoffs)

Nov. 4 — @ Dublin Jerome, W, 28-14 (OHSAA Division I playoffs)

Nov. 11 — vs. Perrysburg, W, 14-3 (OHSAA Division I playoffs)

Nov. 18 — vs. Springfield, L, 35-7 (OHSAA Division I playoffs)

2023 Schedule

Aug. 18 — vs. Pickerington Central, 7 p.m.

Aug. 25 — vs. Glenville, 7 p.m.

Sept. 1 — @ Gahanna Lincoln, 7 p.m.

Sept. 8 — vs. Olentangy Berlin, 7 p.m.

Sept. 15 — @ New Albany, 7 p.m.

Sept. 22 — @ Dublin Coffman, 7 p.m.

Sept. 29 — vs. Upper Arlington, 7 p.m.

Oct. 6 — @ Hilliard Bradley, 7 p.m.

Oct. 13 — @ Hilliard Davidson, 7 p.m.

Oct. 20 — vs. Olentangy Orange, p.m.