Patriots look to build on deep postseason push

The Olentangy Liberty football team went through an extremely difficult 2016 schedule for its first undefeated regular season in school history … a season that culminated in a first-ever trip to the state final four.

The Patriots needed fourth-quarter rallies in six of their 13 wins, including a pair of thrillers over district-rival Olentangy Orange.

For Liberty coach Steve Hale, the benefit of a deep playoff run means four extra weeks of practice.

“Our kids got to practice football for four more weeks,” Hale said. “I don’t think that can be understated. That was huge … we’ve never experienced that before. Everybody gets 10 days over the summer … not everybody gets those four weeks. That’s pretty significant.”

He went on to say the extra practice time helps top programs stay on top.

Last year was a magical run for sure, but how can they top it this year?

It won’t be easy.

For one thing the schedule, while not as tough as last year, is still daunting. The non-conference slate features a game against last year’s Division I, Region 3 top seed Huber Heights Wayne (home Sept. 1) as well as rematches with Hilliard Davidson (away Sept. 15) and Pickerington North (home Sept. 22).

“We’re going to be competing every week,” Hale said. “I would rather have great challenges and get to the playoffs ready than get there with a weak schedule. I’ve done both and it’s much better to be ready.”

And league-wide improvements make the OCC-Buckeye more difficult to navigate. Anything can happen in the Olentangy (away Oct. 13) and Orange (away Oct. 20) rivalry games.

“I would guess people are saying that Orange is the favorite (to win the league),” Hale said. “I think all three teams are capable of post-season play if they keep it together and stay healthy. Staying healthy is huge.”

Westerville South (home Oct. 6) has star running back Jaelen Gill back, who was injured in Week 1 last season.

Westerville Central (away Sept. 29) looks to send legendary coach John Magistro out with a bang and former Big Walnut and Buckeye Valley coach Scott Wetzel looks to take the next step at Westerville North (home Oct. 27) in year two.

Liberty adds Ottawa (ON) St. Joseph’s Football North (home Aug. 25) in the opener and Marysville (away Sept. 8) to the schedule as well.

“If we’re not good enough, we won’t (make the playoffs) – it’s that simple,” Hale said. “It’s completely up to us. With our schedule, I don’t think we’re going to get left out at 9-1. We came to the conclusion that for us to get better, we have to play better (teams).”

Add to that – star Brendon White, who did a little bit of everything for the Patriots last season, has graduated and moved on to Ohio State.

“Obviously when you’re replacing high-end scholarship players like Brendon White and those guys … we’ve got guys coming that can do things,” Hale said. “We’ve got some young guys that really haven’t been seen yet that are capable of good things.”

It’s not like the Patriots lack for star-power.

“We have players that are scholarship-level for other sports,” Hale said. “We have athletes that can do things – it’s just a matter of getting them all organized where they belong on the field and how that’s all going to work.”

Edward Warinner (senior) is a Michigan State commit and returns with Skylar Wahlund (senior), an Ohio State lacrosse commit, and John Paolo to lead a stacked linebacker unit.

Warinner missed the end of last year because of a torn ACL.

“He’s a little sore at times but that’s typical of that surgery,” Hale said. “He’s back … he’s good. He’s a tough kid.”

Johnny Wiseman (senior), also an Ohio State lacrosse commit, returns to the defensive secondary and is the leading returning receiver off last year’s squad (23 catches for 389 yards and nine touchdowns).

Ben Roderick (junior) is a highly-touted basketball recruit, who looks to use his size and leaping ability as an asset at wide receiver.

Oh, and there’s Mitchell Okuley (junior), who announced himself with a bang in his limited time at quarterback, throwing for 1,358 yards and 12 touchdowns in 11 games – seven of which he saw meaningful action.

“He played in some really competitive games, so we’re hoping that means that he’s seasoned and ready to go,” Hale said.

Okuley, a three-sport athlete who is getting a lot of attention for his prowess on the baseball diamond, threw for a season-high 318 yards against Westerville North and for a season-high five touchdowns in the Patriots’ playoff-opening win against Medina.

“He’s a competitor,” Hale said. “He does a good job of keeping everything balanced. He’s healthy right now and ready to go.”

Andrew Lane (junior), Corbin Parrish (sophomore) and Jackson Roberts (sophomore) add depth at the quarterback position.

Matthew Webb (senior), who rushed for 1,223 yards and eight touchdowns, returns to the backfield.

Nicholas Paolo (junior) and Dylan Stevens (sophomore) will see action in the backfield as well.

“Those guys have worked really hard and are capable of running the ball too,” Hale said.

Outside of Roderick, fellow basketballer Mitchell Kershner (junior) and Jake Sincek (junior) will play out wide.

“(Kershener) is going to open a lot of eyes,” Hale said.

Wiseman will be a weapon at H-back again. Grant Wilson (junior) is also in the fold at that position.

Sincek and Warinner will see time at tight end.

“We have quite a few kids we can go to … that have good experience and have played,” Hale said.

Seniors Nicholas Rosi, Chase Bower and Trenton Hedge; juniors Alexander Azusenis, Brady Kuhn and Nicholas Brown and sophomore Tyus Thompson provide Liberty with a lot of depth on the offensive line.

On defense, the Patriots have to replace Delaware County player of the year Drew Rosi (defensive end/tight end), now plying his trade at the University of Toledo.

“We have the same problem every year. When you have good senior classes, you got a lot of guys playing and starting – we’ve had that for several years now,” Hale said. “They play a certain role on the team.

“When the next guys come in, they’ve followed in the footsteps and they know the expectations. So, they just try to emulate the work ethic they saw before.”

Hale wasn’t ready to commit to any specifics on the defensive line, but did mention Jaime Hessing (junior), Chase Reida (senior), Rosi and Azusenis.

“We’ve got a handful to replace at defensive line,” Hale said. “We’re working a ton of guys there. (I’m) not exactly sure who those guys are going to be right now … some of the same names (from the offensive line).”

Kyle Akerman (linebacker) and Vincent Ramondelli (safety) are also key defensive players that have graduated from last year’s team.

Troy Oehler (senior) has nailed down one cornerback spot and Wilson, Brandon Brown (senior) and Chase Miley (junior) are all in the mix on the other side.

Wiseman will be backed up by Kershner at free safety and Dominic Nappi (senior), Nicholas Paolo, Webb and Lucas Campbell (senior) are all in the mix at corner.

The Patriots have to replace A.J. Smith at kicker and Will Fowler at punter. Kershner will likely be the kicker, but Hale is still looking for someone that provides some of Fowler’s characteristics.

“We’re just trying to figure out who can do what (Fowler) did,” Hale said.

C.J. Nossaman is back at long-snapper.

Overall, Liberty has 92 players on a roster that Hale called one of the smartest he’s ever had.

A final four appearance is a high bar, though.

“They have a lot to live up to last year,” Hale said. “These kids want to be successful, too.”

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The 2017 Olentangy Liberty varsity football team 2017 Olentangy Liberty varsity football team HR Imaging Partners

By Michael Rich

For the Gazette

Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichnotwealthy or contact him at [email protected]