BLOOMDALE — It is guaranteed that Liberty Center fans will be screaming, in unison, “Hit, Liberty, hit” at Perrysburg High School’s Widdell Field at Steinecker Stadium Friday.
It is a tradition at the Henry County school.
However, that will not be the biggest concern for the Elmwood football team when the Royals and Tigers meet in a Division V regional final at 7 p.m.
It is the Tigers’ defense.
While 13-0 Liberty Center, first in the region and ranked fourth in the Associated Press Division V state poll, has scored 500 points, they have given up just 88 — a little over one touchdown per game.
“They are a really good football team,” said Elmwood 6-foot, 240-pound senior two-way lineman Zach May.
“They are undefeated on the year and that is hard to do at this level, so you have to really applaud that from them and come out and take it to them, play hard and let the chips fall where they may.”
The Tigers have shut out five opponents — Tinora (31-0), Otsego (9-0), Archbold (16-0), Swanton (42-0) and Coldwater (34-0).
“They are a well-coached football team and they play very physical. They play hard and they get after you, especially on offense,” Elmwood coach Greg Bishop said. “They are a winged-T and they run a lot of multiple formations, so they do a lot of good things. We have to be ready for that and set the level of intensity from the get-go.”
Elmwood, 12-1, has scored 522 but given up 185. The Royals came back from a 12-7 halftime deficit to Tinora to defeat the Rams, 34-15.
Elmwood defeated Otsego, 21-7, and 49 points were given up to Eastwood in their only loss (49-48), but the Royals returned the favor to beat the Eagles 24-7 in a regional semifinal.
Elmwood has qualified for the playoffs six seasons and is 7-5 all-time in playoff games. This is LC’s 22nd season (37-20 all-time) qualifying with one state title (1997), two state runners-up and seven state semifinal appearances
May said if the Royals play like they did against Eastwood, a state semifinal berth could be in the cards for the first time in school history.
“We just have to come out and play like we did Friday. Play well and with intensity and emotion,” May said. “The coaches like to talk about toughness, enthusiasm and discipline for our team, so we have to come out and make sure we focus on that and everything will take care of itself when we leave it all out there.”
Elmwood 6-4, 200-pound senior quarterback Hayden Wickard likes to think his offense can test the Tigers’ defense.
Wickard has completed 177 of 272 passes (65%) for 3,089 yards with 30 TDs and just 10 interceptions.
“They run a 3-3 stack. They are a man team, and I think they believe that they are just going to beat every athlete, and we need to put them to the test this week,” Wickard said. “We are going to have to execute better and make sure we give our athletes better opportunities.”
Bishop said Wickard has the playmakers who can continue doing the damage they’ve been doing to opposing defenses.
“Our receivers are obviously very explosive,” Bishop said. “They catch the ball, and our guys are very dangerous in space. We’re still working on things to improve at the receiver position.
“Our running back, (5-10, 200-pound senior) Mason Oliver, is a really good running back and (6-1, 185 senior) Alex Arnold comes out of the backfield at times, and he’s very explosive back there.
“Hayden Wickard has thrown for over 3,000 yards, he’s rushed for over 500 — he’s got legs, too, and he can run.
“So we have some weapons, but it comes down to executing. We have a bunch of weapons but if we are not executing at a high level, it will not matter,” Bishop added.
On the other side of the ball, the Knights are going to have to stop the passing game of 6-2, 185-pound senior quarterback Zane Zeiter and ground game of running back Matthew Orr.
Otsego held Orr to under 100 yards, so maybe the Royals can learn from the Knights. Like Eastwood, the Tigers have historically liked to draw in defenses with their run game, then throw over the top when no one expects it.
“Obviously, he (Orr) is a special talent and a special kid. You don’t rack up the kind of stats and have the success that he has had without being a really talented player, so we just have to come out and play physical with him,” May said.
“You don’t treat him like any other kid because obviously he is a special talent, but you stay low, wrap up and make good tackles. It’s a pretty simple concept for everybody really.”
Bishop added, “We our going to have our hands full. Everyone is really good at this point in time.
“We’re going to have to tackle low, bring it when we tackle and play physical football — our brand of football, Elmwood football, and get after them.”
Wickard said there is one other important item that the Royals need to have: the desire to win.
“We have to be more enthusiastic in practice. We’ve been preaching all year that we need more enthusiasm and whenever we are enthusiastic it shows as a team,” Wickard said.
Bishop said with the success his team has had, there should not be any more need for inspiration other than wanting to continue winning.
“We are at the elite eight, so there is really no emotion needed — just keep getting better every single day and block out the noise,” Bishop said. “We’ll have tunnel vision on Liberty Center and get after them this Friday. We’re excited about the opportunity in front of us.”
(Sentinel-Tribune multimedia journalist J.D. Pooley did the interviews for this story.)