If the Olentangy Liberty football team makes a third straight playoff appearance, it will be earned thanks to an ambitious schedule.
With the OHSAA Division I playoffs changing to four regions from the previous two, Patriots coach Steve Hale thought beefing up the schedule would be beneficial.
“The Division I playoffs are a little different monster,” he said. “So, we felt like that kind of schedule would definitely prepare us for that.”
Liberty is scheduled to play North Allegheny in the new Western Pennsylvania Legends Football Classic to open the season.
The Patriots were originally scheduled to play at Colerain in the opener, but the Cardinals asked out to play Indianapolis Warren Central on ESPN – which Hale had no problem obliging.
“We didn’t feel it was fair to deny them that opportunity,” Hale said.
North Allegheny advertised the Classic on the OHSAA website and when Liberty responded, the game was set as Friday’s headliner. Overall, there are four games scheduled for the event, with three games scheduled the next day.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” Hale said. “There’s a team coming from Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh Central Catholic.”
North Allegheny finished 11-2 last season, including a 6-1 record to tie Pittsburgh Central Catholic and Pine-Richland (Gibsonia), its only regular season loss, for the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League title.
The Tigers ultimately fell in the quarterfinals of the WPIAL AAAA tournament to Pittsburgh Central Catholic. North Allegheny won Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association state titles in 2010 and 2012.
In the process of scheduling Week 1, Cleveland Glenville agreed to schedule a game at Liberty for Week 2.
“We had no games and after that, we were loaded up,” Hale said. “The front end of our schedule is pretty staunch.”
The Tarblooders are coming off an 11-2 season, advancing all the way to the Division II, Region 4 final.
Glenville dominated its conference last year with a perfect 7-0 record in the Senate Athletic League, outscoring opponents 307-19 with five shutouts.
Next, the Patriots play host to St. Thomas More out of Ontario. The Knights, winners of their third Golden Horseshoe Bowl in 2015, routinely visit Ohio despite the disadvantage of having to play by American rules.
“They come down here every year and they’re going to go to the Ohio State game the day after,” Hale said. “So they get a good cultural experience out of the whole thing.”
Solon, a familiar Liberty foe, beat up on the Knights 50-7 last September.
The Patriots will see former league-mate Hilliard Davidson in Week 4. The Wildcats made the Division I, Region 2 semifinal last season after winning the OCC-Central, which included a 26-0 victory over Liberty.
The Patriots wrap up the non-league schedule against Pickerington North, which finished 5-5 last season and 3-4 (fifth place) in the OCC-Ohio.
And that doesn’t even include the realignment. Liberty moves to the new OCC-Buckeye with Olentangy and Orange and the three Westerville schools.
All six schools in the league have reason for optimism this year.
Olentangy and Westerville Central are coming off playoff years and look for continued success.
Orange is building up numbers, particularly on the lines. The Pioneers gave Liberty a scare in the first half before the Patriots wore them down on their way to a 43-14 victory last fall.
Westerville South has the highly-recruited sophomore running back Jaelen Gill, who has offers from six Big Ten schools, including Ohio State, among several others, according to multiple recruiting websites.
Westerville North is coming off a 0-10 season, but has hired former Big Walnut and Buckeye Valley coach Scott Wetzel, who won a state title with Big Walnut in 2007.
“We just have to get used to some new (teams),” Hale said. “We haven’t seen Westerville Central for a few years. Both (Central and South) used to be significant rivals for us, but we just haven’t seen them for four or five years.
“The Olentangy and Orange games are now league games and Coach (Wetzel) is back over at Westerville North, so that program will get turned around right away. So, that just brings a new dimension to what we do.”
Brendon White’s move back to quarterback has made a lot of noise this offseason. White had been playing quarterback from the seventh grade until his sophomore year.
“As a sophomore, he was battling Alex Lando, but then he had a dislocated elbow and missed seven or eight weeks,” Hale said. “This isn’t some new thing that just came out of left field. He has a background.”
By the time he was healthy enough to return to quarterback, Lando had solidified the job.
“Alex, then, was a starter as a junior and coming back as a senior, we felt like that gave us a good opportunity to have both of them on the field at the same time with Brendon at the slot position,” Hale said.
Hale said White approached him in the offseason about moving back.
“It didn’t seem like a bad idea,” Hale said. “So, we took a look at it and he’s done a really good job with it.”
Sophomore Mitchell Okuley will back up White after competing for the starting job most of the preseason.
“Mitch is going to be really good,” Hale said. “Brendon probably gives us a few more options right now, but Mitch is a really good player. He’s just a really solid kid (and) a good athlete.”
White’s move back to quarterback doesn’t rule him out in the defensive backfield or on kickoff and punt returns.
“I’m sure he’s going to make an impact on defense,” Hale said. “He’s been a starting free safety for three years, so when we need him back there, we’ll certainly use him. But, we’ve been focusing him on offense to start with.”
The Patriots have plenty of weapons on offense. Will Fowler (senior), Ben Roderick (sophomore), Ben Stablein (sophomore), Johnny Wiseman (junior) and Drew Rosi give Hale plenty of weapons at wide receiver and tight end.
Matt Webb (junior) is the favorite to be the top rusher this season. Derek Ritter (senior), Griffin Hughes (senior), Kyle Akerman (senior) and Wiseman could also see time in the backfield.
(Webb) is a really solid player,” Hale said. “He’s a little bigger back than we’ve had in the past, but boy, he’s got a nice lean to him. He’s a little faster than what people think he is.”
Connor Parrish (senior/guard) returns to an offensive line that lost a lot off last year’s squad. The Patriots are trying to find the remaining four out of Andrew Crooks (senior/center), Nick Rosi (junior/tackle), Nick Azusenis (senior/tackle), Jack Merritt (senior/center-tackle) and Josh Fisher (senior/guard-tackle).
Meanwhile, on defense, Ed Warinner (junior) returns to the Liberty defense anchoring the middle linebacker spot. Warinner has offers from several Division I schools, including Rutgers.
Akerman and John Paolo (junior) and a transfer from Mason, Skylar Wahlund (junior), fill out the linebacker corp.
Webb provides the linebackers with depth and Wahlund adds flexibility and could see time on the defensive line.
Nick Rosi will see time on the defensive line. Drew Doll (senior), Chase Smith (senior) and Fisher round out the rest of the line.
Vincent Ramondelli (senior) returns to his spot at safety and will be accompanied by either Ritter, Hughes or Wiseman. Hughes and Wiseman are both committed to Ohio State to play lacrosse.
Fowler, a three year starter, and Troy Oehler (junior) will play corner for the Patriots.
Hale said that team chemistry is a big strength for the 2016 squad.
“Our older guys are doing a good job of being unselfish with what they’re being asked to do and that’s spilling into our younger kids,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun to watch. If we stay healthy, our comradery continues the way it is and if, when things get challenging, we stay together, we should have a chance to be decent.”
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.