CLYDE — Thanksgiving is a time for family, for being thankful and for football. This week, Liberty Center, Canfield South Range and 26 other schools are taking that to heart as they prepare to not just watch football, but play it as they are getting ready take play in the state final four this Friday.
Liberty Center and South Range, who have both had recent success going a combined 68-8 over the past three seasons, will face off in a Division V regional semifinal at Clyde’s Bob Bishop Stadium.
For Tigers (14-0) head coach Casey Mohler and the Liberty Center program, who are in the state final four for the second time in five years, last going in 2018, the opportunity to still be playing football is not lost on them.
“It’s pretty special, especially when you’ve got a group of guys like this that are good kids. They really enjoy being around each other. They enjoy being around the coaches and the coaches enjoy being around them and they like being in the locker room. They just don’t want it to end,” Mohler said. “And especially the seniors kind of realize they’re on borrowed time now, and they understand that once it’s done, it’s done for them and they’re not going to get this back. So they’re they’re really enjoying every moment of it.
Both programs have had similar levels of success recently but South Range has really come on over the last two decades as this will be their third trip to the state final four in school history, the other two coming in 2017 and 2005. They lost both, including the 2005 trip which came against eventual state champions Patrick Henry. They are 28-19 all-time in the state tournament and led by hall of fame head coach Dan Yeagley, who was picked for the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame this past summer. He’s 246-74 in his 28-year career and this year was the 10th time that he led the Raiders to a 10-0 regular season.
Liberty Center on the other hand, holds a 38-20 record, and will play in the state final four now for the eighth time in search of their third state title game berth.
What matters most though now is the present, and presently both teams have had incredible seasons to this point as they both are 14-0 and have dismantled opponents. Liberty Center has a plus-31 point differential, South Range has a plus-34 point differential.
Both teams are led by their defenses, which give up an average of nine points a game, and in particular their front-sevens which have mauled opposing offensive lines all season. The focus will be on the trenches especially this week as both teams can run the ball and the winner in the trenches, will likely be the winner of the game.
On offense the Tigers are led by their Wing-T attack which means they will have multiple dangerous ball carriers. Senior running back Matthew Orr (167 att., 1,516 yards, 25 TDs), junior running back Colton Kruse (151 att., 1,205 yards, 17 TDs) and junior quarterback Zane Zeiter (99 att., 858 yards, 11 TDs) are the leaders of that group. Zeiter can also toss it when needed throwing for 1,176 yards, 15 TDs and six intercpetions. Colton Chambers (18 rec., 350 yards, 3 TDs), Aiden Hammontree (16 rec., 228 yards, 4 TDs), Riley Chapa (15 rec., 225 yards, 2 TDs) and Landen Kruse (13 rec., 209 yards, 4 TDs) are all crucial to the passing attack.
Owen Box (6-4, 266, Sr., 13 sacks, 21 TFL), Tanner Kline (5-11, 200, Sr., 10 TFL), Landon Bockelman (6-3, 260, Sr., 9 sacks, 19 TFL) and Seth Navarre (6-2, 225, Jr., 4 sacks, 6 TFL) will be the anchors of the offensive and defensive fronts. Linebacksers Trent Kruse (95 tackles), Orr (67 tackles) and Colton Kruse (64 tackles) lead the team in tackling.
They’ll be up against it against a South Range defense though that in the playoffs as allowed just 176 total yards per game and just 3.5 yards per play. Three of the Raiders’ four playoff opponents have been limited to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Perry came into its regional final last week averaging 42 points per game. The South Range defense held Perry way below its average, allowing just 21 points and 147 yards of total offense.
The defense will look to bounce back for the first time all season as Elmwood’s balanced offensive attack was able to break through for 38 points last week in Liberty Center’s 49-38 win.
Even this late in the season at 14-0, Liberty Center is learning new things that they need to shore up ahead of this week.
“We had a couple of communication breakdowns that hurt us and then just making sure that we’re tackling and being fundamentally sound,” Mohler, who now holds a 61-13 record over five seasons, said. “When you get to this level, the athletes are better, they’ve got more of them so we just have to make sure we are sound across the board.
South Range is no exception to that as they, like Liberty Center are led by a balanced attack that will sport two running backs and a mobile quarterback as well. Blake Ewert leads the backfield with 1,044 yards on 124 carries for 15 scores. He had 173 yards on 16 carries in the 49-21 regional finally win over Perry. Aidan Dominguez (65 att., 469 yards, 6 TDs) and quarterback Billy Skirpac (101 att., 573 yards, 15 TDs) are also crucial to the rushing attack.
And though the Raiders only threw the ball nine times in that win over Perry, that is a little misleading at Skirpac can also sling it as well. He’s got 2,369 passing yards, a 71% completion rate, 30 touchdowns and four interceptions on the season. Receivers Shane Lindstrom (57 rec,. 923 yards, 12 TDs) and JD Crouse (30 rec., 702 yards, 8 TDs) have been the main benefactors.
Skirpac threw for three scores and rushed for two more in their regional semifinal win over Youngstown Cardinal Mooney.
“They are really balanced, they can throw it anytime they want, they can run it anytime they want,” Mohler said. “They are probably a little bit more run heavy, because they get up big in games, but when you look at their first and second quarter stuff they are very, very balanced.
Being able to control the the ball, which is something they struggled to do last week against Elmwood in part thanks to a season-high three fumbles, will be key as will being able to stop the run, which went for 293 yards against Perry last week. Coming into last week, Liberty Center had only fumbled the ball once all season.
“We pride ourselves in trying to stop the run game and that’s going to be a huge challenge for us this week but I think our guys are going to rise to the occasion,” Mohler said. “We are also emphasizing and making sure that we understand how important possessing the ball is.”