By JAMIE BAKER
Liberty-Benton and Patrick Henry played some of their best football of the season in last week’s Division V, Region 18 semifinals.
But only one team will earn the title of Region 18 champion.
The Eagles and Patriots will face off in the postseason for the fifth time in the past decade for the Region 18 title at 7 p.m. Saturday at Lima Stadium.
Patrick Henry leads the series 3-1. They met in back-to-back regional finals in 2007 and 2008, Patrick Henry beating the Eagles 44-27 in ’07 and Liberty-Benton scoring a 28-0 win in ’08.
The two teams won their regional semifinal games in different fashion.
Liberty-Benton used a strong defensive effort, including forcing a turnover in overtime, to beat top-ranked Lima Central Catholic 24-17 and knock the Thunderbirds out of the playoffs for the second straight year.
The Patriots, meanwhile, also played stout defense, but their offense was the real story in a 56-15 whipping of Columbia Station Columbia.
Patrick Henry racked up more than 600 yards against the Raiders.
PH quarterback Gabe Jones’ prolific 8 of 9 passing effort for 289 yards against Columbia impressed the Liberty-Benton coaching staff.
“The biggest thing that concerns us defensively was the way Gabe Jones threw the ball for them last week,” Liberty-Benton head coach Tim Nichols said. “Everything he threw was on target. He was good with the deep ball, be was good with the short stuff.
“Now, you combine that with the ability to run the ball with the front line that they’ve got and they really make it tough on a defense. They’ll test us both ways.
“At the end of the day, line play is going to be the answer,” Nichols said.
The Eagles will be saddled with stopping a Patrick Henry offense that’s averaging more than 39 points per game.
Jones, who is 80 of 142 passing for 1,673 yards with 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions, can also beat teams with his feet. He has rushed for 884 yards on 134 carries with seven scores.
The Patriots lost standout running back Tobey Hernandez (1,285 yards rushing, 21 TDs) to academic issues before the postseason began. But Calvin Palmer and Galen Powers have filled the void nicely, averaging 5.6 and 6.2 yards per carry, respectively.
But none of those offensive touchdowns and yards would be possible without Patrick Henry’s big and talented offensive line.
“I think last week was our best line play we’ve had all year,” Patrick Henry coach Bill Inselmann said. “They communicated well, and for an offensive line to be successful you have to fire off the ball and we really fired off the ball well and maintained our blocks.”
The Patriots have made the regional finals in eight of the past 10 years.
“I think after we played Northwood the kids realized we have to play hard every down to keep moving on in the playoffs, or at least I hope that’s the case,” Inselmann said. “We got up early, they felt that confidence and played extra hard.”
Liberty-Benton, meanwhile, has been strong on both sides of the football. The offense is averaging 39.8 points per game while the defense is allowing just 11.1 per outing.
Mitch Linhart does it all for the Eagles. He’s run for 952 yards and 15 touchdowns and passed for another 1,701 yards and 18 scores. He also punts and kicks for Liberty-Benton.
Defensively, Linhart leads the team with four of the Eagles’ 12 interceptions on the season.
The Eagles’ defense has bent but hasn’t broken as Nichols’ crew has had a knack for making big plays at the right time.
“Really, since the Leipsic game, our defense has played really well. We’ve bent, but the kids have made some huge red zone stops. The kids have just found ways to make plays,” Nichols said. “Defensively, what we did against Liberty Center and in the second half last week was outstanding.”
One thing both schools do share in common is an uncanny ability to bounce back from adversity.
“Across the board, we’re just not that athletic up front as we have been in the past, but these kids have gotten a personality that there’s no real panic ever in them,” Nichols said.
“We’ve been down with Leipsic and down with McComb and found a way to come back. Our kids are really resilient and that’s benefitted us.”
Patrick Henry has had to deal with its own share of adversity.
The Patriots dropped back-to-back games to NWOAL champ Bryan (14-7) and Archbold (51-22) but appear to be back in the groove.
“To be honest with you, late in the season we were really reeling from those two losses,” Inselmann said. “Anytime you lose, you lose a little bit of self-confidence, that’s just human nature. That’s especially true when you take two losses in a row, our kids just aren’t used to that.
“If you look at our team right now we feel as coaches our players are getting that confidence back, they are getting that swagger that good teams have. There is no substitute for confidence.”