LIBERTY CENTER — A magical 1997 season on the gridiron almost never came to fruition for Liberty Center.
Had the Tigers played Ottawa Hills that fall, there would be another ville, burg, town or city in the Buckeye State currently reminiscing about their state championship from 20 years ago.
Perhaps, the 1997 D-V champion would have been hated rival Patrick Henry, which rallied from a 44-26 second-half deficit in week 5 to stun LC on its home field, 46-44.
Instead, it’s the small town nestled in the northern part of Henry County that can forever claim the 1997 Division V state football championship following a magical 14-week autumn jaunt.
However, that fall was proliferated with twists and turns.
• Senior standout Kenzy Kern moved from fullback to center two days before the season opener at Tinora.
• A still-talked-about 46-44 setback to Patrick Henry in the “Greatest NWOAL Game Ever Played” appeared to knock the Tigers out of the playoff hunt at the season’s midway point.
• An Ottawa Hills forfeit on Oct. 10 kept LC’s playoff hopes alive.
• Three slim wins in the final three weeks of the season kept postseason dream alive.
• A botched field goal in the regular season finale against Archbold clinched a playoff berth.
Maybe the “Football Gods” were simply smiling down on the Tigers in 1997 after a crushing setback to Steubenville Central Catholic in the 1993 state championship.
Whatever happened, there was no arguing that the Tigers were tough, fast, mean and a talented bunch. They ended up leaving nothing to doubt.
“I think our reserve team would have won six varsity games that year,” said mentor Rex Lingruen, who spent 32 years leading the Tigers before retiring after last season. “We knew we were going to be good.”
At that time, the Orange-and-Black Tigers were winning a lot of games just on reputation alone. LC left many opponents battered and bruised.
“This was back when we were feared,” said Kern, a senior captain that started at linebacker and center in 1997. “We wore the black uniforms and you had to come down the hill to play us (at Tiger Stadium). I have friends that still say they hated coming to Liberty Center to play us. You knew you were going to get hit.”
LC punished the best of the best in Division V to end the 1997 campaign. The Tigers nearly averaged a point a minute over the course of the final 120 minutes of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Liberty’s defense played lights over the stretch.
Including the final 24 minutes of the regional final against Patrick Henry and two state games vs. Applecreek Waynedale and Amanda-Clearcreek, LC outscored the trio 119-16. The 16 points allowed came in the final minutes of the state games with LC having subbed deep into its bench.
THE YOUNGER YEARS
One LC native that grew up in the beginning of the Lingruen era is current Napoleon coach Tory Strock.
“It’s special playing football at Liberty Center,” said Strock, a 1993 LC grad and senior on the ‘92 squad that went to state semis.
In Lingruen’s second year in 1985, a young Strock wanted nothing more than to be around the football team. So he signed up to help out as a manager. Lingruen awarded Strock an interesting first task in the opening minutes of his time under Lingruen ... cleaning a refrigerator.
For Strock and many other youngsters in the LC community, Lingruen and the football program were revered.
It could be said the 1997 state championship started with the 15-mile round-trip bike rides from Liberty Center to the McDonald’s in Napoleon or on the hill outside Tiger Stadium or in yards of their parents.
“We just wanted to be around it (Liberty football),” said Ryan Zeiter, a junior fullback/linebacker in ‘97. “If we weren’t at the hill at the stadium playing, we were at someone’s sideyard playing.”
A band of brothers attitude was ingrained at a young age.
“You knew in fourth grade when your friend threw you a block that he would be doing it in high school,” noted Kern.
The Lingruen era in 1985 did not start well as the Tigers took their lumps at 0-10. The following year, LC finished 3-7, but knocked off a 5-0 Swanton squad, 13-6, in a heavy rain. Lingruen looks at that triumph as a catalyst for the program, which also defeated Holgate and Ottawa Hills in ‘86.
“Everyone wants to give that ‘97 team credit but it started with Jeff Gyurasics, Norm Zeiter, Tory Strock, Keith Kern ... it started with those guys,” said Ryan Zeiter.
Over the next four years, LC went 8-2, 9-1, 6-4 and 6-4 but fell short of the program’s first-ever playoff berth.
The 1991 campaign was a breakthrough, as LC made its first playoff appearance, topping Marion Elgin, 43-18, and then losing 30-28 to Springfield Central Catholic.
The Tigers took another playoff step in 1992, advancing to the state semifinals before St. Henry pasted the Tigers, 28-6.
In 1993, Lingruen and the Tigers rolled through the first three rounds of the playoffs and then tangled with Steubenville Central Catholic in the state championship. The contest went into overtime tied 14-14, and after Steubenville CC kicked a field goal on its overtime possession, the Tigers fumbled on theirs and the Crusaders recovered to deal Liberty a devastating 17-14 loss.
“I can remember what I was wearing that game,” recalled Strock. “I cried as if I was a kid that played in that game because a lot of the seniors on that team like Keith Kern, Chris Ward and Charlie Bostelman (are great friends). When I was a senior those were the guys that helped take us to the state semis. I felt such a connection to that team and coaching staff. I took it as hard as the kids on the team.”
Lingruen also took the defeat hard, but vowed to return to Massillon.
“After the game in ‘93, (LC defensive coordinator at the time) Tim Spiess and I went back to the field to take one more look before leaving,” said Lingruen in a 1997 Crescent-News article. “And we made a vow to ourselves more than anyone else that we’d get back here. So we started working, being in the finals wasn’t enough.”
It would take four years, though, before Liberty Center made a foray back into the playoffs.
Liberty Center football is rooted deeply in family.
“I guarantee you when I was in the yard playing catch with Norm Zeiter and Kerry Krugh and those guys, Joe Gyurasics was running around there with Ryan Zeiter and Seth Atkinson,” explained Strock. “That’s just how it was in Liberty. There’s a brotherhood ... it’s a neat fraternity. Not that other schools don’t have that, but it’s different in Liberty.”
Kenzy Kern’s grandfather, Kip Kern, played for the Tigers in the 1940s. He and his wife, Cecilia, have been staples at LC games over the years.
Their son, Tom, became athletic director at LC and was on Lingruen’s coaching staff when he began leading the Tigers.
Kenzy’s brother, Keith, was a star fullback/linebacker on the 1993 state runner-up team.
Meanwhile, Kenzy’s cousins, Todd Mohler and Scott Sharpe were on the ‘97 squad along with cousin, Lance Kern, who has passed away.
Troy Westhoven, another cousin of Kenzy’s, was a freshman in 1997 and later became one of the greatest running backs in LC history. He is currently the wrestling coach at Liberty.
The Smith brothers, Cam, Sam and Jesse were also a huge part of the ‘97 team.
Zeiter is another well-known name in LC football lore.
Ryan’s cousin, Bill Zeiter, played on the 1993 squad while older brother, Norm Zeiter last played for the Tigers in 1992. Norm was part of the LC coaching staff in ‘97.
Quarterback Joe Gyurasic’s brother, Jeff, was another notable former Tiger.
The LC football tradition and lineage created by those that played before them was of huge importance to the 1997 team.
Led by Lingruen and his coaching staff of: Scott Barrett, Jeff Gyurasics, Terry Miller, Tom Mohler, Rob Myers, Ron Schimming, Tim Spiess, Doug Upell, Al Weirauch and Norm Zeiter, LC entered 1997 looking to make history.
LC coasted through the first four weeks of the season, clobbering Tinora, Montpelier, Evergreen and Delta by a combined 172-33.
That set up a monstrous clash with bitter Henry County rival Patrick Henry in week 5 at LC. The Patriots were ranked third and the Tigers eighth.
Ryan Zeiter scored on a three-yard run in the third quarter to hand the hosts a commanding 44-26 advantage.
But the Patriots weren’t done. They closed the gap to 44-40 and then recovered an onside kick late in the game at the LC 49.
All-Ohio PH quarterback Bryan Hieber drove the Pats within striking distance of the end zone, and on the final play with the clock ticking down, Ryan Zeiter was called for pass interference. With the clock at 00:00, PH was given an untimed down and Hieber hit Lee Creager in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
“The first time I got called for pass interference and they came back with the same play,” explained Ryan Zeiter. “And (I was) devastated.”
Zeiter was also covering Creager on the game-winning play.
“I’ll tell you what though, not one of those guys on the team gave me crap for it,” added Zeiter. “I thought I lost us that game. But never once did these guys or Coach Lingruen give up on me.”
“I think we all wanted to kill Zeiter,” joked Lingruen.
In a twist of fate, it was an LC product that helped beat the Tigers that night, as Strock designed the on-side kick that led to the final possession. He was in his first year as an assistant at PH in 1997 under Bill Inselmann after graduating from Bluffton College.
“Being born and raised in Liberty Center, I have so many great relationships in that town still,” explained Strock. “But there were a couple outliers that night (in 1997) that were shouting not-so-pleasant things at me.”
LC’s secondary cramping also had an affect on the outcome of that contest according to Lingruen, along with some not-so-friendly clocking running at Tiger Stadium.
“Here’s what cost us that game,” explained Lingruen. “They threw a pass with something like five seconds on the clock — an incomplete pass — and there was still a second on the clock. The official turned to me and goes, ‘Who in the hell is running your clock?’ Because it should have ran out and the game would have been over. So they got one more play and there was (pass interference on Zeiter).”
LC went through some adversity after the loss and began to “butt heads,” according to Lingruen. At that time, only four teams from each region made the playoffs, not like eight currently.
In most years, one loss meant no playoff berth.
“Everything kind of fell apart,” admitted Lingruen while looking at Kern. “We had a couple seniors that really thought we weren’t going to get in (the playoffs).”
Asked Lingruen of Kern: “You really didn’t believe that we would get in did you?”
“Ummmm ... my opinion ... no,” confessed Kern.
Liberty obliterated Swanton the following Friday, 70-20.
Liberty was scheduled to host Ottawa Hills in week 7, but the Green Bears had been beat up pretty good in a setback to Elmwood the previous week.
The same scenario played out the year before when LC was supposed to play Ottawa Hills, which was playing its final season under the guidance of longtime mentor Norm Niedermeier.
“The year before I called Norm and told him, ‘We’re too good, we’re going to hurt you,” Lingruen stated. “He said, ‘Oh, we would never not play you.’ I said, ‘You don’t understand, you don’t want to play us.’ Because I didn’t want them to play us. He says, ‘Oh no, we’ll play.’ And oh my gosh, we kicked their (tails) bad.”
Had LC not played Ottawa Hills in 1996, the Tigers would have made the playoffs even with a 22-20 loss at PH.
Paul Yunker — who later went on to coach at Bryan and Evergreen — succeeded Niedermeier for the ‘97 campaign, and made the call to Lingruen to ask about not playing because the Green Bears were down to 13 players after the Elmwood loss.
“All of a sudden I get a call that they don’t want to play us,” explained Lingruen. “The second we knew they weren’t going to play us, we knew we were getting in (the playoffs if we won out). But we had some seniors that didn’t believe it.”
Spiess, who was a math teacher, was a wiz at tallying computer points and had LC’s playoff scenarios already figured out with the Tigers not playing Ottawa Hills.
“We already knew our divisor was nine and would get in playoffs if we didn’t play Ottawa Hills,” remarked Lingruen. “I told them (Ottawa Hills), I’d be as happy as all get out (not playing).”
Ohio’s prep football history would have been a lot different in 1997 had the OH-LC contest been played.
Ironically, Elmwood did itself an injustice and LC a big favor by banging up Ottawa Hills.
Had LC played Ottawa Hills, the Tigers would not have made the playoffs and Elmwood would have.
However, LC struggled through its final three games of the season, nipping Wauseon 28-22, Bryan 32-27 and Archbold 21-14.
The narrow triumph over Archbold took some more LC fortuity.
Joe Gyurasics lined up for a late game-winning field goal attempt but Ryan Zeiter dropped the snap.
“He missed the hold,” exclaimed Atkinson, shaking his head.
“Oh, I know,” chimed in Lingruen with a huge laugh. “He wanted to score another touchdown. It was a perfect snap and went right through his hands. Instead of throwing a pass it was a shot put. When the ball was fluttering through the air I had visions that they were going to intercept it and run it back.”
Instead, Zeiter’s “shot put” pass found the hands of Andrew Hoffman for the game-winning touchdown, clinching a playoff berth.
”THIS MOVE WILL WIN US A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP”
Two days before LC was to visit Tinora in the season opener, Kenzy Kern made the move from fullback to center.
Assistant coach Terry Miller called it: “This move will win us a state championship.”
Lingruen’s assessment was Kenzy wanted to be better than his brother, Keith, at fullback.
“My opinion was he tried to so hard, he couldn’t relax,” said Lingruen. “He’d run 100 miles per hour and he’d just run into things.”
Needing a center, and after trying another player at the center spot, Kenzy took over, leaving the fullback position open for Zeiter.
“I remember a lot of weird stuff from that season,” said Kenzy. “I came up with the saying, ‘We want to play our 11 best on our best 11.’ I wanted to be on the field.”
Raw and inexperienced as a center, Kenzy was called for three holding penalties against Tinora, which featured Eric Becker, who went on to become first-team all-Ohio as a defensive lineman.
“You can make fun of me and you still do,” explained Kern while glancing at Atkinson and Zeiter. “I had three holding calls because I didn’t know what the heck I was doing.”
He overcame his lack of experience and went on to become all-Ohio anchoring the offensive line. He paved the way for 3,567 rushing yards by Tiger backs and a 6.6 yards per carry average.
Zeiter paced the LC backfield with 1,190 yards and 16 touchdowns while Sam Smith was next with 1,082 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“I have to admit, Zeiter had some talent there. I hate to admit that,” Lingruen joked.
Kern actually changed the center position at LC and the Wing-T offense Lingruen ran during his tenure. Needing speed from the center spot and someone that can cut and block, Kenzy was the perfect player.
“It kind of changed the outlook on all our centers from that point on,” said Lingruen.
VS. NO. 1 MARION PLEASANT AT BATH
LC was thrown right into the fire to start postseason play against defending state champion Marion Pleasant, which was riding a 24-game winning streak.
“That was the best team I ever played against,” lauded Atkinson. “I remember Coach Barrett coming up to me and telling me, we better keep this close because they were good.”
Eight minutes into the game, the Spartans appeared to be on their way to an easy victory, up 12-0.
The Tigers answered and went on to edge the Spartans, 21-19.
LC held MP to less than 100 yards in the final three quarters.
“Our league was extremely physical back then,” said Lingruen. “There were no weak teams back then. I said this team has not played in a league like ours and we’ll be hurting these kids.”
COLUMBUS GROVE TRAIN
Just a few miles away from Lima Bath High School where LC started the playoffs, Patrick Henry dispatched of Columbus Grove in another first-round playoff clash that Nov. 7 night at Lima Stadium, which set up a titanic playoff fray the next Friday.
However, it didn’t take that long for the Henry County enemies to renew acquaintances since the mid-season clash.
As both schools traveled back home on buses, a train blocked their paths in downtown Columbus Grove. In front sat the LC bus and directly behind sat the PH bus.
The predicament created a few tense moments for both teams. Cool heads prevailed and they would be able to duke it out on the field a week later.
VS. PATRICK HENRY AT FINDLAY
When kickoff for the highly-anticipated rematch arrived, PH and LC fans, along with other football fans from the state in attendance, sat in darkness shivering in the 20-degree temperatures while the football warriors waited in their respective lockerrooms.
The problem was caused by a power outage at Donnell Stadium, causing a nearly two-hour delay in toe being put to pigskin.
“I still think Rex had something to do with that,” said Strock facetiously as a PH assistant at the time.
LC adjusted to the frigid temperatures by opening their lockerroom doors and stripping to their under garments as a way to get acclimated to the cold.
The first 24 minutes of the game — played on a field covered with a few inches of snow — were as advertised.
“I thought it was really neat,” chuckled Lingruen of the conditions while Zeiter, Kern and Atkinson shook their heads. “I wasn’t cold at all ... we had heaters on the sidelines.”
Hieber hit all-state wideout Tony Hiser with a long pass right before the half to give the Patriots a 14-13 edge. LC defensive back Jesse Smith had the pass go through his hands on the way to Hiser, but the Tigers had the Pats right where they wanted them.
Hieber went on to be named Offensive Player of the Year in D-V while Hiser and running back Kris Gerken earned first-team all-Ohio honors.
“I think that gave them a little false hope,” said Lingruen.
Noted Zeiter: “The irony of it was Jesse Smith said, ‘They beat us last year and we were winning at half. We’re losing, this is good.’ He was taking it as a good sign. I remember telling guys, we’re physically beating these guys up.”
The assessment was right on.
Sam Smith bolted away from the PH defense on the first play from scrimmage to start the final 24 minutes and the Tigers dominated the rest of the way.
LC used a decisive 27-0 advantage in the final 24 minutes to claim an easy 40-14 win.
“You could see physically we were starting to dominate them,” stated Lingruen.
“We were blitzing them, we were jail breaking them,” added Zeiter.
Over the course of the second half, LC became unstoppable.
“You can put that as our state championship,” said Kern. “When we beat them, it was over. That was our mental block.”
Black-and-Orange defenders sacked Hieber 10 times that night. Meanwhile, the LC offense generated a whopping 465 yards.
VS. APPLECREEK WAYNEDALE AT MARION HARDING
Heavy rain engulfed Ohio in the middle of November, creating a muddy mess around the state.
Having practiced in the muck all week, LC was ready for the less-than-ideal conditions at Marion Harding High School.
“We didn’t really have any problem with them at all,” said Lingruen.
The only Waynedale score came in final minutes against LC’s third string.
VS. AMANDA-CLEARCREEK AT MASSILLON
Ironically, the Tigers were being scouted heavily in the state semifinal game in Marion by then-Harding leadman Tim Hinton, who is currently the executive director for football relations and special assistant to Urban Meyer at Ohio State.
Hinton’s brother, Ron, coached LC’s state championship adversary, Amanda-Clearcreek.
Not even a future Ohio State University football assistant was going to slow down the LC machine.
Liberty’s gridiron greats were sent off to Massillon by practically the entire community on Thanksgiving Day.
The Tigers then practiced on the same field Lingruen played on during his prep days at Akron Manchester, which played in the D-IV championship game in 1997 and suffered a 31-24 loss to Germantown Valley View.
One of the more special moments for the LC football team that week happened in a church basement near Massillon as the Tigers enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner together the day before playing for their childhood dream.
“How cool is that? It was special,” Kenzy explained of the meal.
The next day, the Tigers munched on the Aces of Amanda-Clearcreek.
Although, Clearcreek was expected to be an immense challenge.
In fact, foes weren’t even averaging a field goal against the stingy Aces, which had allowed a measly 33 points all season.
No team scored more than seven points in a game on the Aces as Columbus Charles Prep, Circleville and Lucasville Valley reached that achievement in the regular season while Columbus Hamilton tallied six points on A-C.
Clearcreek boasted a 40-0 regular season mark from 1994-97 but had lost three straight years in the playoffs to Versailles.
After blanking their first two playoff opponents, the Aces met up with Versailles again without their top defensive player (Chad Detty), who was injured the previous week against Lucasville Valley.
However, A-C finally got the monkey off its back with a 27-6 stomping of Versailles.
Just like it had in the previous three playoff games, LC entered the state final as an underdog.
But, the Aces had not seen speed like the Tigers possessed. Playing on turf for the first time at Paul Brown Tiger Stadium, LC gained a little more speed that afternoon.
“When I first saw their stats, I was excited,” said Lingruen. “I thought, this is a team that isn’t going to know what’s happening when they give up a couple touchdowns and they’re going to panic. That’s exactly what happened. They got behind and they didn’t know how to play from behind. It changed them right off the bat.”
Kern separated his shoulder the week of game and missed warmups while looking for his parents so they could sign a waiver for him to get a shot in his shoulder for the injury.
“I missed all of warmups and I’m freaking out because I can’t find my mom and dad to sign off on the shots,” said Kern.
It took the Black-and-Orange all of 57 seconds to show Amanda-Clearcreek it was facing a little different “Cat” as Gyurasics bolted loose for a 72-yard touchdown on the second play of the day.
“The play that did it for me was Joe’s touchdown,” said Atkinson. “I was blocking on the right side and the next thing I know Joe is by me.”
Lingruen had forecasted the outcome of his senior signal-callers run in a film session earlier in the week.
“We had parent-teacher conferences the week of the state game and Joe came down,” described Lingruen. “I said, ‘Joe, we’re going to run a 45-trap and then you’re going to keep it on the next play because they were really biting.’ I said, ‘You’re going to come around the corner and we’re going to score.’ That’s exactly what happened.”
A staple of the LC program under Lingruen was all 11 offensive players in the end zone to celebrate touchdowns.
“The person leading him down the field is our center (Kern),” smiled Lingruen. “We had three guys in front of him leading him down the field.”
“I think the fullback was waiting in the end zone for him,” laughed Zeiter, referring to himself and his so-called stellar speed.
In full disclosure, Atkinson was the third Tiger into the end zone after Gyurasics and Kern while Zeiter was the fifth black jersey to join the party.
Noted Kern: “They knew it was going to be a long night when they couldn’t run Joe down.”
Just 4:30 later, Liberty Center had the so-called impenetrable Amanda-Clearcreek defense reeling as Sam Smith hit paydirt from five yards out.
Silveus added a 16-yard second-quarter TD reception from Gyurasics before Zeiter plowed into the end zone from a yard out for another second-stanza score.
Smith sauntered across the goal line again in the third quarter while brother Jesse hauled in a 25-yard TD and Mike McClure ended the LC scoring with a 51-yard run.
The outcome was never in doubt and the youngest Kern sibling knew it before the championship tussle even started.
“My brother came to me on a Wednesday,” explained Kenzy of the week leading up the state final. “Andy Silveus, Chris Baum and I were watching game film and Keith said, ‘These guys (Amanda-Clearcreek) are the real deal.’ I was watching them on film and I knew we’d win the game by 50 points. Keith said, ‘No, they’ve got three all-staters (offensive lineman James Valinsky, kicker Scott Affolter, linebacker and D-V Defensive Player of the Year Brad Miller), and you’re going up against (nose guard) Nathan Rose. I told him, ‘I’ve watched them on film, they’re not that good.’”
Division V’s top center hammered away on Rose that day, knocking Clearcreek’s man-in-the-middle out of the game three times due to two hand injuries and a leg injury.
Clearcreek finally scored in garbage time with just under two minutes left.
The moment overtook Kern, as the Paul Brown Tiger Stadium lights cut through a late dreary afternoon turning to night.
“It hit me a ton ... bittersweet,” said Kern as the game wound down with his team holding a commanding advantage. “Cam Smith, who was out most of the playoffs got to run the ball one time. The ‘96 team was in the front row, there was Derek Zeigler’s dad with the lucky pumpkin that everybody would rub and was on the news. It was for all those other teams.”
The Tigers decimated the Aces in every single statistic, including 446-142 in total yards. Seventy of A-C’s yards came via the non-factor 70-yard TD run with 1:38 to play.
Liberty Center became the first state champion ever in Ohio prep football history to knock off four unbeaten teams in the playoffs on the way to a state crown.
The Aces did slow down Zeiter, who carried 16 times for 32 yards and took a ribbing from Kern during a gathering in August on the outskirts of Liberty Center.
Teased Kern: “Twenty one carries for 21 yards?”
“You know what, it didn’t matter,” quipped Zeiter.
Stats didn’t matter to Zeiter or any other LC player that day. It was for the teams before them, the school and their loving community.
The Tigers were on top of the football world that day, and 20 years later, they remain there with memories that will ramble through the village of Liberty Center forever.