Not many high school football teams can finish with 10 wins and call it a down year.
Almost none, actually.
Olentangy Liberty, though, is one of those teams. The Patriots finished 10-2 overall last fall, 4-1 in the OCC-Buckeye Division and won a game in the postseason before falling in the second round of the OHSAA playoffs.
Most teams would kill for a fall like that.
Most teams … not Liberty. It was the first time in four years the Patriots didn’t win a regional championship and play in the Division I state semifinals. Think about that.
Still, considering everything they went through, most notably injuries to key players, the season was quite successful. The adversity they faced could help them this year, too, as the coronavirus pandemic has created quite a few challenges for teams across the country.
“We need to build off the culture from the team last year,” Liberty coach Steve Hale said. “We saw a great deal of adversity and responded very well. The adversity forced a lot of our younger guys to step up and contribute in big games.”
This year, with the regular season slimmed down to a six-game slate due to concerns cases of COVID-19 could spike in the winter, and the Patriots making the move from the Buckeye to the Central Division, every game will be big.
Instead of the three Westerville schools and rival Olentangy — talented teams in their own right — Liberty will get Hilliard Davidson, Hilliard Bradley, Upper Arlington, Dublin Coffman and Olentangy Orange, which also makes the jump from the Buckeye to the Central and was the only team to beat Liberty in league play last season.
“Our adjusted OCC schedule is very challenging,” Hale said. “The schedule will provide us with great tests all season long. This kind of schedule prepares teams for the challenges of the playoffs.”
Liberty has had a ton of success with guys named Mitch behind center … and Hale and company hope this year’s no different. Mitchell Okuley, who went to Ohio State to play baseball, was a key part of all three of the Patriots’ recent regional title teams. Now, after a year without a Mitch as the signal caller, senior Mitch Fields is ready for his chance to orchestrate the offense.
Last year’s QBs — Jackson Roberts and Corbin Parrish — combined to throw for over 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns as seniors, so he’ll have plenty of production to try and account for.
He won’t have to do it by himself, though, as the Patriots return a slew of their top playmakers from a season ago. He should have time to operate as well with senior linemen Matt Wrather and Mitch Fuller and junior Ben Huefner all back in the fold.
Senior Aidan Kenley returns at running back. After starting the season with huge games against Pickerington North (192 yards) and Hilliard Davidson (116 yards) — both key non-league wins — injuries slowed him a bit in the second half of the season.
Still, Kenley managed to rack up a solid 5.2 yards per carry. He finished the season with 477 yards on 92 carries and scored six touchdowns.
Senior Cam Barcus was the team’s leading receiver last year with 45 grabs for 622 yards and five touchdowns. He’s back for his senior season. Senior Dom Magistrale (25 receptions for 353 yards and a touchdown) is also back, as is senior Matt Hale (nine receptions for 72 yards and a touchdown) in the slot.
Defensive returners include seniors Landon Smith (three sacks), Brian Yamokoski (34 solo tackles, 23 assists, a sack and a forced fumble) and Drew Thornton (team-best four interceptions and two forced fumbles).
Senior Jacob Bonacci is also back on the defensive line and Hale said newcomers Caden Minniti (sophomore defensive back), Carter Smith (junior offensive lineman), Chase Brecht (junior slot receiver) and Joey Dierker (senior wide receiver/strong safety) are also ready to break onto the scene.
Hale said the team lacks experience on the defensive side of the ball — probably one of its biggest weaknesses heading into the season — but has plenty of young pieces to play with.
“We have a very deep team with 104 on our varsity roster,” Hale said. “We have a lot of good high school football players competing for playing time.”