That will change Friday, though, as the central Ohio schools located in neighboring counties are set to battle for the Division III state football championship at Canton’s Fawcett Stadium at 3:00 p.m.
Both schools are in the hunt for their first state title with Big Walnut (13-1) making its first trip to the title game in school history.
“It is a great experience to be here,” said Big Walnut head coach Scott Wetzel. “It is a goal all kids have – to play in the state championship game. We had a nice season, stayed healthy and our kids have developed from being average, to good, to great football players.
“We pulled out some (close) games along the way and caught some breaks but I think breaks are all part of it at this level. And here we are getting ready to play a team that is (located near us) in Canton, Ohio for a state championship.”
Licking Valley (12-2) is making its second trip to the state championship game after falling in the 2001 Division IV final 40-13 to Kenton.
“We didn’t do too well the last time and losing at any level hurts, so hopefully we can fare a little better this time,” Licking Valley head coach Randy Baughman said.
“We know what to expect and what the week is like. It was a little overwhelming the first time and now you know how to plan ahead of time. We are not changing anything practice-wise and I want to keep things in the same routine. We are all creatures of habit and the kids like to know what is coming up. We won’t have any surprises for them.”
Getting Defensive: Big Walnut returned a wealth of players this season from last year’s Region 10 finalist team, including nine on defense.
The Golden Eagles allowed just over 10 points per game this year and their strength is in the middle at the LB positions with Will Studlien (145 T, 8 TFL), Mark Nelson (154 T, 15 TFL) and Ethan Wetzel (97 T, 12 TFL), son of head coach Scott Wetzel.
Studlien earned Division III Co-Player of the Year honors on Tuesday and Wetzel was named to the Division III All-Ohio first team defense.
“Our defense has been our strength and we hung our hat on it the past couple of weeks,” said the elder Wetzel. “We shut down a good Monroe team (21-7). Clyde was probably the best team that we played and we held them to just 14 points. Our defense is definitely our strong suit and hopefully we’ll be able to hang our hat on it this Friday as well.”
The Licking Valley defense will be zeroed in on Wetzel at QB, who passed for 1,221 yards, ran for another 1,140 and accounted for 29 TDs.
“Ethan has been our go-to guy on the offense,” said coach Wetzel. “We like to get the ball in his hands. Ethan has just been able to make plays for us and sometimes they’re by design and sometimes they’re not by design and Cory Wolfe has done a nice job for us at the tailback spot.”
Added Baughman: “They spread things out and present a tremendous challenge in that they can go from two backs to no backs from one play to the next. They put a strain on your defense and it all starts with (Wetzel). What an outstanding athlete he is and playmaker. They’ve got real good skill people other places, too, so they are a very tough team to defend.”
‘Storm’ Chasers: The Big Walnut defense will have its hands full in the title game with Licking Valley junior RB Storm Klein toting the ball. Klein, an Ohio State verbal commit, had 185 carries for 1,359 yards and 27 TDs for the Panthers this season.
“We have to stop Storm,” said Wetzel. “He is an outstanding football player and I think he is everything he is built up to be. We watched him on film and what an incredible kid he is.”
Klein is also a force on defense collecting 82 tackles (12 for loss) at LB and was named to the Division III All-Ohio first team defense Tuesday.
“We’re tickled to death to have him,” Baughman said, “but he’s got kind of a bull’s-eye on his back. The last few weeks we’ve been pleased with Storm and how he has stepped up in the leadership role. Storm’s a humble kid and sometimes he doesn’t want to step out for fear of appearing big-headed. We’ve got to push him to step to the front and he has done that the last couple of weeks and it has made him a better player.
“He would be the very first to admit he’s not able to accomplish anything without (the offensive line) in front of him.”
Joining Klein in the backfield is RB Josh Bailey who has 108 carries, 780 yards and 11 TDs. Bailey ripped off a 65-yard TD run with 25 seconds left in the state semifinal match up with Mentor Lake Catholic to give the Panthers a 27-21 victory.
QB Nick Phillips is 78-of-148 on the season for 1,202, 11 TDs and 7 INTs.
“You have to focus on Storm, absolutely, but there is a nice support group around him and we’re going to have to be aware of everybody else on the field,” said Wetzel.
Keys to Success: Both Baughman and Wetzel have a mutual respect for each other’s programs and both expect a physical, hard-hitting game for the state title.
“We have got to be ready to raise our game up to that intensity level and be as physical as they are,” Baughman said. “I don’t know that we have played a team yet that plays with their intensity. That is going to be a real challenge for us.
“The key, without a doubt, is holding onto the football. Their defense is amazing at taking the ball away from the opponent. For us to have a chance, we’re going to have to make good decisions, hold onto the football and be really sound in the kicking game.”
Wetzel is looking to do the same.
“Obviously, a big key for us this week is we’re going to have to be able to crank out some first downs and I think the biggest key of the game is to keep Licking Valley’s offense on the sideline as much as possible,” he said.
Preseason Favorite: Big Walnut was ranked No. 1 in the ONN-Ohio High Division III Preseason Power Poll and held the top position up until the last week of the regular season when the Golden Eagles lost to New Albany 21-7 after losing several key players to injury in the game.
“I hate to say you learn things from losing but I think it took a lot pressure of our kids worrying about being perfect all the time,” Wetzel said. “We could put that behind us and start the playoff season. Maybe in the long run that loss took a lot of pressure off us.”
Big Walnut finished the regular season ranked No. 10 in the Division III Power Poll, while Licking Valley was No. 2.
A Rivalry Renewed: As stated, Big Walnut and Licking Valley formerly competed in the Buckeye Athletic Conference and played each other annually before the Golden Eagles left for the Ohio Capital Conference in 1997.
“I remember having some great games with Big Walnut,” said Baughman. “The one thing you always knew playing Big Walnut was how tough and how physical their kids were. It was always a challenge having them in the league. We enjoyed the series and looked forward to it because we were going to be playing one of the better teams around.”
Said Wetzel: “Those were some knock-down, drag-out football games. That is how the two communities are. They are well-known for playing tough, physical football so I would guess you will see some of the same on Friday.”
Baughman expects as much.
“The thing I think about is how physical (the game) is going to be because I know how physical Big Walnut players are,” Baughman said. “You watch the film and it jumps out at you immediately how much more physical they are than their opponents.”
County Pride: With Licking Valley aiming for a D-III title and Newark Catholic on the docket for the D-VI state championship game, two schools will be battling for state championships from Licking County this weekend.
“We’re very honored to be representing Licking Country, as is Newark Catholic, and they have a great tradition there,” said Baughman. “We’d like to fit in there someplace and I think the county is excited and we just want to try and represent the best we can.
“We feel blessed to have had the season that we’ve had. We’re thrilled, the community is thrilled and we’re honored.”
Big Walnut becomes the first school from neighboring Delaware County to reach the state football finals.
“This is the best football team that Big Walnut has ever had and maybe we can say with argument that it is the best football team Delaware County has ever had,” said Wetzel. “We’re very proud of that and we’re proud to be representing Delaware County in Canton Friday.
“Delaware County football has just gotten better. The quality of football has definitely grown.”
Said Baughman: “To play a team from central Ohio just makes it all that more exciting. We like to think central Ohio has pretty good football. Other parts of the state may argue with us but it is nice when two us from the same area can play (for a championship) – and what an outstanding group we are going to play.”
Sunbury Big Walnut (13-1)
Nickname: Golden Eagles
Head Coach: Scott Wetzel
Record at School/Yrs: 88-24/12
Conference: Ohio Capital
State Playoff Appearances: 5
State Championship Game Appearances: 1
State Titles: 0
All-Time Playoff Record: 8-4
Final ONN/Ohio High Power Poll Ranking: 10th
Points Per Game: 29.0
Opponents Points Per Game: 10.6
2007 Regular Season
@Worthington Thomas Worth. W, 41-6
@Delaware Hayes W, 40-15
@Chillicothe W, 43-7
Lewis Center Olentangy W, 14-12
@Westerville Central W, 29-22
@Pataskala Watkins Memorial W, 21-0
Dublin Scioto W, 21-7
Powell Olentangy Liberty W, 24-7
@Columbus Franklin Heights W, 44-18
New Albany L, 24-17
Rossford W, 35-2
Shelby W, 35-8
Clyde W, 21-14
Monroe W, 21-7
Newark Licking Valley (13-1)
Head Coach: Randy Baughman
Record at School/Yrs: 223-68-1/25
State Playoff Appearances: 11
State Championship Game Appearances: 2
State Titles: 0
All-Time Playoff Record: 22-10
Final ONN/Ohio High Power Poll Ranking: 2nd
Points Per Game: 37.6
Opponents Points Per Game: 13.8
2007 Regular Season
Zanesville W, 27-7
@North Canton Hoover L, 45-40
Bishop Ryan Secondary W, 52-20
@Columbus Bexley W, 31-0
Heath W, 41-0
Whitehall-Yearling W, 51-7
@Granville W, 28-0
Hebron Lakewood W, 50-13
Newark Catholic W, 32-0
@Gahanna Columbus Acad. W, 49-21
Granville W, 42-21
Beloit West Branch W, 35-21
Canal Fulton Northwest W, 21-17
Mentor Lake Catholic W, 27-21