Olentangy Liberty head football coach Steve Hale has been about as successful as one can be after starting a program from scratch.
The Patriots have had one losing season in Hale’s 14 years — his first one.
Although winning has been the norm, Liberty has found a way to break new ground this fall. The Patriots (12-0) finished the regular season undefeated for the first time. That record helped them secure their first top seed in the tournament.
“We really haven’t talked about it that much,” Hale said. “We take each opponent, break them down, put together a good game plan and try to put our kids in good positions to be successful. So far, it’s just worked out.”
With a 24-17 win over rival Olentangy Orange in last week’s Division I regional quarterfinals — the second seven-point win over the Pioneers in three weeks — Liberty has a chance to do another thing that hasn’t been done in its previous eight playoff bids: win a second tournament game.
That opportunity comes against Medina Friday night at Arlin Field in Mansfield — the same venue Liberty lost to top-seeded Lakewood St. Edward in 2014.
“The kids really liked that stadium and they’re really excited about playing (in) that type of environment,” Hale said.
The fifth-seeded Battling Bees had their season flash before their eyes as Toledo Whitmer built a 24-0 lead in the first half and a 17-point lead midway through the third quarter.
But, Alex Whittaker, who stepped in at quarterback and led the Bees to a 13-point comeback victory at Euclid in Week 9, led another comeback at Whitmer with a pair of touchdown runs.
A Demetrious Shannon interception set up Jimmy Daw’s go-ahead one-yard touchdown run with two seconds left. Daw also had a one-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Whitmer fell to Olentangy on a Jacob Bell 52-yard field goal at the gun that went off the left upright in last year’s tournament.
Whittaker, like Liberty quarterback Mitchell Okuley, has made the most of his opportunity. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound former tight end and defensive end, threw one pass — a 54-yard touchdown strike to Dylan Fultz in a Week 6 loss to Mentor.
He’s 37-for-66 for 628 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions in four games.
Okuley, who has made four starts and seen action in three other games, has been effective for the Patriots in limited time. He has thrown for 982 yards and has a 64.4 completion percentage with six touchdowns and four interceptions.
Medina’s size is a concern for Hale and the Patriots.
“They’ve got some really big players,” Hale said. “That’ll be an issue … it’s reminiscent of the North Allegheny team we played early on in the year.”
Daw, who leads the Bees in rushing with 1,338 yards and is second on the team with 683 yards receiving, stands at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, which makes for a pretty sizable quarterback-running back combo.
“(Daw) is a big, physical kid,” Hale said. “They move him around a little bit — throw the ball to him, they run that zone stuff with him — they make big plays off of screens to him. They’ve been able to generate quite a few points.
Daw has 30 touchdowns on the ground and seven more as a receiver.
Medina (9-2) finished second in the Greater Cleveland conference with losses to Mentor and league-champ Solon.
Only two of the Bees’ opponents ended up making the playoffs — Solon and Euclid.
Medina has played three teams with winning records, but all of those games have come in the last four weeks, which sounds much easier than Liberty’s schedule on paper.
Liberty faced six teams that made the playoffs — with three still alive — and there’s been some close calls along the way.
The Patriots needed fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat Cleveland Glenville and Pickerington North, a fourth-quarter touchdown and a two-point conversion to beat North Allegheny and a fourth-quarter touchdown and two overtimes to knock off Orange the first time around. Two other games were decided by 10 points or less.
The games have been close, but the Patriots haven’t survived simply on smoke and mirrors and a whole lot of luck. Hale said his guys have done it with skill, preparation and the willingness to work as a team.
“We just prepare,” He said. “You try to give kids the chance to make plays and it’s exciting when they do … it’s fun to see that. I hope the work that we put in during the offseason and two-a-days has prepared them to respond in those situations.
“They’re great kids who are successful in many different ways. So, I think it’s a combination of all of that stuff (and) working together at the same time. If you played it all out again, who knows how the 10 games play out.”
Liberty running back Matt Webb, who is a pretty big kid in his own right (5-foot-10, 220 pounds), went over the 1,000-yard mark by 23 yards in the win over Orange last week.
He is tied with Brendon White for the team lead with eight touchdowns on the ground. White is second on the team with 645 yards rushing, most coming while at quarterback.
White moved around quite a bit from slot receiver to running back to quarterback last week, while Okuley mostly stuck behind center. Hale said that will continue this week as well.
“We’re going to try to see if we can use both of them at times,” Hale said. “But, Mitch has done really, really well. (He) brings a lot to the offense, so we’ll move some things around from time to time because they both bring a lot of talent to the offense.”
White threw for 714 yards with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions during the regular season, but has been battling an ankle injury.
Liberty has a lot of weapons, especially at receiver. Ben Rinsma, who has 482 yards and three TD grabs, leads a corps of four different receivers with more than 200 yards.
Johnny Wiseman, who played sparingly last week because of a shoulder injury, has 361 yards and a team-high seven receiving scores and three more on the ground.
Liberty and Medina kick off Friday at 7:30 p.m. The winner plays the Dublin Jerome-Lorain winner in the regional finals.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.