WAPAKONETA — Stunning.
That’s how Lima Central Catholic looked at last year’s 45-35 first-round playoff loss to Liberty-Benton.
Certainly a 10-0 team ranked No. 1 in the state isn’t supposed to go one and out.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Now one year later, LCC (11-0) meets Liberty-Benton (10-1) in the Division V regional semifinals at 7 p.m. Saturday at Wapakoneta’s Harmon Field.
The LCC-Liberty-Benton winner moves on to the regional championship game against the winner of the Patrick Henry (9-2) and Columbia (10-1) game.
Last year Liberty-Benton pounded the T-Birds with an impressive ground game.
“We didn’t deserve to win that game,” LCC coach Jerry Cooper said. “We turned it over five times. And we didn’t stop them.”
The Eagles ran for 326 yards against the T-Birds last year. Leading the way was Brady Vaught, who ran for 269 yards on 29 carries with four TDs. He had TD runs of 55, 74, 2 and 1 yards.
“That was the motivation for this season,” Cooper said. “We had to play well enough to get back to this point.”
Liberty-Benton coach Tim Nichols stopped short of calling the game “a rivalry.”
“It’s only the second time we’ve ever played them, so I don’t know if I’d label it a rivalry,” Nichols said. “I do know that our kids sure respect what they do and that they were 10-0 last year and are 11-0 this year.”
Vaught has graduated, but the Eagles return 6-foot-3 senior quarterback Mitch Linhart. He’s thrown for 1,428 yards with 17 TDs and only four interceptions. Linhart is also a running threat, with 856 yards (9.5 average) and 12 TDs.
Nichols said his team has used four running backs this season, but is relying more on the passing game.
“What’s happened is our quarterback (Linhart) has gotten a year under his belt and the game has slowed down for him a little bit,” Nichols said. “It’s allowed us to throw the ball and I think it’s his experience and his maturity. But we try to maintain a balance (between the run and pass).”
His top receiver is Chase Cook, who has 40 receptions for 864 yards and 14 TDs.
The Eagles’ top running back is Austin Combs, who has 662 yards (8.8 average) with nine TDs. He also has 13 receptions for 201 yards.
Wingback Kyle Bowsher has run for 418 yards and five TDs.
“I think they are balanced between the run, the pass and the option,” Cooper said. Liberty-Benton is averaging 44 points-per-game and giving up 11. LCC is scoring 37.4 per-game and giving up 12.
The Eagles are coming off a 16-7 first-round victory over Liberty Center.
LCC had a 42-14 victory over Collins Western Reserve in the opening round. But that game was far from perfect, as the T-Birds had five turnovers.
“We’ll talk about it, but we won’t harp on it as a negative,” Cooper said. “We had four interceptions, but two of those were because a guy ran bad routes. Twice we threw into coverage.”
LCC’s leading rusher, Jon Washington, missed last week’s playoff game after he went down in Week 10 against Ada with a shoulder injury. Washington has run for 824 yards (6.4 average) and seven TDs.
“We’re hoping he’ll be back this week,” Cooper said of Washington.
Washington also plays defensive end, but Cooper added, “He probably won’t play both sides if he’s back.”
LCC has other running options with the speed and power of Mykale Rogers (472 yards, 10.4 avg., nine TDs). Kalito Lasenby has run for 392 yards, while quarterback Colin Stolly has run for 340 with eight TDs.
In the air, Stolly has completed 86 of 152 for 1,676. He’s thrown 18 TDs with eight interceptions.
Stolly’s top receivers are Darius West (24 receptions, 501 yards, six TDs) and Sam Huffman (19 receptions, 496 yards, six TDs).
“With (Jon) Washington, (Mykale) Rogers and (Darius) West, you have to have to get the best night of tackling,” Nichols said. “They want to get you in open field situations. … They have that speed and if you don’t get them to the ground early, you’re not going to get them.”
The key will be the play of the LCC defense, which was battered by the L-B running game last year. Lasenby leads the team with 100 tackles, followed by Huffman (74 tackles), Lee Steward (70 tackles) and Jacob Tremoulis (59 tackles, 5.5 sacks).
West has five interceptions, while Pitts and Huffman both had four.
“Give Liberty-Benton a lot of credit last year,” Cooper said. “They came right at us and we didn’t respond.”