LEIPSIC — The Putnam County rivalry game between Pandora-Gilboa and Leipsic does not need any hype but this year with both coming in undefeated, the mid-season showdown between district neighbors takes on an even bigger meaning this season than bragging rights.
The winner of this game puts itself in the driver’s seat to win the Valley Division of the Blanchard Valley Conference and a better position to make the postseason.
Leipsic head coach Joe Kirkendall understands the significance of the game but also points out his team has played some big games already this season.
The Vikings opened the season against perennial powerhouse Patrick Henry and escaped with a 7-6 victory and then followed up with a win against Putnam County rival Columbus Grove. Leipsic posted its first win over the Bulldogs, 13-6.
Celebrating these two wins had to be tempered because Liberty-Benton awaited Leipsic. The state-ranked Patriots, postseason participants last year, were favored to win the Valley Division. However the Vikings, who have played on the edge all season, came away with a 21-17 victory.
Leipsic followed up its big win over Liberty-Benton with a decisive, 35-14, win against Hopewell-Loudon for a 4-0 start.
“When you look at our schedule to start the year we knew we had a hands full,” Kirkendall said. “So it was the old cliché of going one week at a time because it was true so we kept plugging away and getting better and hopefully have things fall our way.”
Kirkendall said a little luck and a tough defense are the primary factors in the Vikings wins this year. As a team, Leipsic is giving up an average of 10.5 points per contest.
“At this point and time our defense has been tremendous,” Kirkendall said. “The teams that we have played and the quality of teams that we have played, to be giving up 10 points a game is pretty good. Our starting varsity defense has not given up a touchdown in the second half. Their ability to keep plugging away and keep playing has been a huge key to what we have done so far. They just play incredibly hard.”
Not to be overshadowed, the Leipsic offense has produced in clutch situations and appears to be getting stronger each game.
Viking quarterback Dylan Schroeder is a dual threat. The junior has passed for 601 yards and thrown for three touchdowns and is the team’s leading rusher with 228 yards on the ground and three touchdowns.
Other top rushers are Brayden Niese, who has rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns, and Gavin Lomeli, who has gained 142 yards and scored two touchdowns.
Cole Rieman is Leipsic’s top receiver with 15 catches for 191 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s finding ways and doing different things on different weeks,” Kirkendall said. “We’ve had some different looks. Against Liberty-Benton we looked old school like Nebraska … and then last we go 20 of 26 throwing the football. We have always preached balance.”
Leipsic’s credo on offense is take what it can take that night, It will have a tough time against a stingy Pandora-Gilboa squad because like the Vikings, the Rockets boast a physical, hard-hitting defense.
“They are very team sound and have a couple of individuals who are really, really good and the other guys around them are aggressive and fly to the football,” Kirkendall said. “They tackle and are a very good tackling team.
The Rockets are giving up an average of just over nine points a game and have yet to give up 20 points in a game. Pandora-Gilboa’s defense is giving up an average of 87.5 yards on the ground a game and 138.3 yards a game through the air.
Rocket head coach Matt Hershey said he is not surprised that the Rockets have opened the season with a 4-0 mark and said this team had the potential and has shown it in the early going.
“I think every week we get better,” Hershey said. “We are never going to be perfect. But this team really goes out and gives it their all. We focus each week on what we can do better.”
With a stalwart defense, the Rockets also have a host of offensive weapons, beginning with quarterback Jared Breece. Like Leipsic’s field general, Breece can beat opponents through the air or on the ground. Breece has rushed for 352 yards and scored four touchdowns and has passed for 733 yards and seven touchdowns with three interceptions.
Also providing offensive punch from the backfield is Peyton Traxler who has gained 289 yards on 55 carries with five touchdowns.
The athletic Carter Nofziger is the Rockets’ top receiver with 27 grabs for 333 yards and four touchdowns. Travis Maag is second on the team with seven catches for 179 yards and one touchdown.
Like his coaching counterpart, Hershey understands the significance of the game.
Hershey said one of the differences is this year the team has demonstrated the ability to finish. Last year the Rockets struggled to close out games or hurt themselves at the most inopportune times. This year the Rockets have jumped on opponents early to secure wins.
With the two strong defenses fans might be expecting a defensive struggle but Kirkendall points out that anything can happen Friday night.
Western Buckeye league
As the season enters its midway point, wins become even more coveted ,especially in the race for the WBL that has two teams at 3-0 and three teams at 2-1 in the league.
One of those undefeated teams, Elida (4-0), travels to Wapakoneta (2-2, 2-1). The Redskins appear to be back on track after posting back-to-back wins against Shawnee and Kenton. Elida is coming off a big win against Defiance.
St. Marys (3-1, 3-0), which narrowly escaped with a 35-34 overtime win against Shawnee last week, heads to Kenton, which saw a 21-point advantage evaporate against Wapakoneta last week. Celina (2-2, 2-1) faces Ottawa-Glandorf. Celina posted a 49-6 win against Bath and Ottawa-Glandorf (1-3, 1-2) lost a heartbreaking 19-17 encounter against Van Wert.
Van Wert (3-1, 2-1) will travel to Shawnee (2-2, 1-2).
After its big 20-10 win against Bluffton last week, Crestview (4-0, 1-0) remains unbeaten. The Knights take on Columbus Grove ( 1-3, 1-0), picked up its first win of the season with a 35-0 wins against Paulding.
Two undefeated conference teams battle when Ada (3-1, 1-0) treks to Spencerville (2-2, 1-0). Ada edged Delphos Jefferson 35-33 last week, and Spencerville recorded a 27-20 win against Allen East.
Allen East (0-1, 1-3) heads to Delphos to battle Delphos Jefferson (0-1, 2-2) and Paulding (1-3, 0-1) and Bluffton (1-3, 0-1) square off.
Northwest Central Conference
Upper Scioto Valley (2-2, 1-0) opened the season slow but after a 32-0 win against Waynesfield-Goshen, the Rams are in the hunt for the conference crown. The Rams will look to continue their winning ways when they play host to Ridgemont (0-4, 0-1). Lehman Catholic (3-1, 1-0) defeated the Golden Gophers 62-8.
Waynesfield-Goshen looks to avoid another losing streak and will face Perry (1-0, 1-3). The Commodores picked up their first win of the season by defeating Hardin Northern 41-6.
Lima Central Catholic (3-1) recorded a 28-6 win against Toledo Waite and will try to make it two straight against Toledo schools when LCC welcomes Toledo Rogers to Spartan Stadium at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
Rogers is winless and has scored 14 points for the season.
Delphos St. John’s (3-1, 1-1) enters the meat of the Midwest Athletic Conference after posting a 24-21 win against Versailles in overtime. The Blue Jays will take on New Bremen (2-2, 0-2). The Cardinals are coming off a 28-20 loss to state-ranked Anna.
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-068 or on twitter at @JoseNogueras1.