Through the first four weeks of the 2018 season, things couldn’t have gone much worse for the Olentangy Liberty football team.
The Patriots saw their stud starting quarterback, Mitchell Okuley, go down in Week 1 with an injury and, when the dust finally settled after Week 4, they found themselves staring at a 1-3 record.
Things only got better from there, though. Okuley returned and Liberty started winning again. They finished 4-1 in league play, winning a share of the conference crown, made the playoffs and continued to win … all the way into the state semifinals.
The run ended there, but the experience stayed with the players all offseason.
“I feel like our season last year was a learning experience for all of us,” Liberty coach Steve Hale said. “We learned a lot about ourselves and grew through the adversity we faced. The team continued to get better all the way through the season.”
And the growth didn’t stop there.
“We definitely had a positive vibe throughout the offseason,” Hale said. “Our kids knew that we faced a lot of difficult things and overcame most of them. The challenges create a positive environment when kids handle them the right way.”
The Patriots have been a mainstay in the state semifinals, making the final four each of the last three seasons. Okuley, who is at Ohio State on a baseball scholarship, was a part of all three of those runs. Now, it’s someone else’s turn.
“We currently have three main candidates to replace Mitchell Okuley — Jackson Roberts, Corbin Parrish and Mitchell Fields are all working to fill that role,” Hale said. “They each bring a slightly different skill set to the situation. We will need both scrimmages to evaluate them and determine a starter … we’re lucky to have three guys so close in talent.”
No matter who the QB is, he’ll have plenty of talent around him.
Ben Wrather and Tyus Thompson return as starters on the offensive line. Wrather is committed to Northwestern and Thompson is a Saginaw Valley commit.
“They will need to anchor that group,” Hale said. “They are both very solid leaders. Jacob Sulewski, Max Turner, Jadon Brownlee and Kyle Hehmeyer are competing for the remaining spots.”
Skill position guys back in the fold include Aidan Kenley, Kyle Wilson and Cam Barcus.
“Aidan returns at running back,” Hale said. “He’s an explosive athlete with a lot of experience the past two years. Kyle returns at wide receiver — he had a great junior year and has great hands and vision — and Cam played a lot at wide receiver as well. Cam did a great job stepping in as a sophomore.”
After that, Hale said there’s a lot of competition for the remaining offensive spots. Brennan Rowe and A.J. Rausch, both standouts for the baseball team who are committed to play at Ohio University and Indiana, respectively, joined the squad and will look to earn time at receiver. Drew Thornton and Matt Kessler are competing for wide receiver spots as well.
Returners on the other side of the ball include Kaden Tong, Ben Flees and Matthew Barrett on the D line; Dylan Stevens, Ben Cox and Tyson Chapman at linebacker; and Corbin Parrish in the secondary.
“Kaden, Ben (Flees) and Matt are all very good defensive linemen,” Hale said. “Dylan, Ben (Cox) and Chapman are all great leaders and players — Dylan served as a captain last year — and Corbin was a key player for us in the secondary.
“Andrew Barrett, Brian Yamokoski, and Ryan Byrd are working really hard to help out in the secondary as well.”
The Patriots maneuvered through a tough schedule last year and, well, they’ll have to do it again as they host Pickerington North, Huber Heights Wayne and Cleveland Glenville in back-to-back-to-back weeks to start the season. It doesn’t get any easier after that as they travel to Hilliard Davidson.
“The schedule will be a big challenge,” Hale said. “The non-conference games will hopefully prepare us for a very challenging league this year. We will need to stay healthy all year to have a chance.”