It is arguably the top current high school football rivalry in northwest Ohio, and that has more to do with mutual excellence than dyed-in-the-wool tradition.
Liberty Center (3-0), ranked seventh in the Division V state poll, plays at 15th-ranked Patrick Henry (3-0) at 7:30 tonight.
Although the matchup in the Northwest Ohio Athletic League has always been significant within its mostly rural area of Henry County, the real luster wasn't attached to this game until 1996.
That's when Patrick Henry took a 22-20 win at home in Hamler on the way to a 10-0 regular-season finish. It was crushing blow to Liberty, which missed out on the playoffs despite a 9-1 mark.
Liberty Center coach Rex Lingruen - whose Tigers would win a Division V state championship the following season, despite another even more agonizing regular-season loss to PH - helped fuel the increasing fire between the two schools after the '96 loss.
During a local radio interview that season - after having lost to the Pats in a game he felt the officiating hindered his team's chances - Lingruen was asked what Archbold's chances would be in its upcoming game at PH.
"I said their chances would be good," Lingruen recalled, "as long as they were playing against 11 and not 16."
Lingruen's obvious reference to the officiating sparked an uproar among Patrick Henry followers, who smelled sour grapes. Lingruen said some of them sent penalty flags to him through the mail in reply.
"It was all tongue-in-cheek from my end," Lingruen said, "but they really took it seriously."
In 1997, PH rallied from a 37-20 halftime deficit at Liberty to take a last-second 46-44 victory.
Given a second chance on a pass interference call, this one not disputed, PH won when quarterback Bryan Hieber completed a TD pass to junior Lee Creager with no time left.
The Tigers would get revenge in the second round of the playoffs, however, pounding PH 40-14 en route to their '97 state-title triumph.
"Three things make it a great rivalry," PH coach Bill Inselmann said. "Number one, it's one of those backyard games. We're not far apart. Two, there's only four high schools in Henry County, and we're the only two who play each other. And three, there's the high quality of both teams, especially the last eight years.
"There are rivalries that started much earlier and have more tradition. But as far as what this game has meant recently and how the games have lived up to the expectations, I think it's the best."
Beginning with 1996, the winner of the Liberty Center/Patrick Henry game has gone on to win or share the NWOAL championship and reach the playoffs each time. The Tigers won four straight between 1998 and 2001, going at least three games into the playoffs each year. PH has won the last two league titles, sharing the 2002 title with Delta.
Entering these last nine matchups, including tonight's showdown, Inselmann's Patriots have come in unbeaten eight times and are 28-1 prior to the week-four meeting. Liberty has come in unbeaten in seven of the last nine years, and has gone 27-2 overall leading into the rivalry game.
Patrick Henry has had the upper hand the past two years, winning at home 34-6 in 2002, and hammering the Tigers 48-12 last year in Liberty Center.
But Inselmann insists that those convincing wins haven't left his team overconfident.
"We don't worry about being overconfident because we have a lot of respect for Liberty Center and what they've done in the past. That respect goes along with this game."
"I'm afraid, if I lose this year, they're going to run me out of town," Lingruen joked.
This year's Patriots have been paced offensively by junior quarterback Zack George, who has played well in replacing graduated three-year QB Trent Meyer. George has completed 37 of 65 passes for 575 yards and seven touchdowns with two interceptions.
His top target is returning All-Ohio receiver Marc Krauss, a junior who has 11 catches for 230 yards and three TDs in three games. Three other PH receivers have combined for 21 receptions for 303 yards and four TDs. Four running backs have rushed for 97 or more yards, led by Ben Botjer's 146 on 15 carries.
The Pats have posted lopsided wins over Leipsic, 40-7, Swanton, 47-12, and Montpelier, 54-0.
Liberty Center has been led offensively by running back Curt Silveus, who has rushed 36 times for 316 yards and scored seven TDs. Brett Babcock has 18 attempts for 210 yards.
Tiger QB Brian Babcock is 13 of 31 passing for 381 yards and three TDs with three interceptions.
Liberty may or may not have Eric Wymer tonight. Wymer, also one of the Tigers' top defensive players, scored four TDs this season before sustaining a week-two injury against Montpelier.
Liberty Center has also had three easy wins, beating Tinora, 34-14, Montpelier, 48-14, and Evergreen, 48-8.
Inselmann sees the keys to his team's success tonight as being how well it contains Liberty's superior speed, particularly, Silveus, an NWOAL sprint champion, and how well the Pats can pass the ball to set up their ground game. Lingruen feels his team must be able to "stuff the run," and find a way to contain Krauss, whom he says "may be the best receiver we've had in this league since I've been coaching."
"It'll be our first true test," Lingruen said. "Right now we're playing pretty decent, and we're slowly improving. Hopefully we've improved enough to compete with PH."
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