The drought is over for Northwood.
Despite posting 8-2 and 9-1 records in 2007 and 2008, respectively, and winning the Toledo Area Athletic Conference title both years, the Rangers were shut out of post-season play.
This season, the Rangers finished 7-3 and garnered enough computer points to qualify for the state playoffs for the first time since 2004. Their reward? A first-round road game against the top-ranked Division V team in the state.
Northwood, which won its third straight TAAC title, plays at Northwest Ohio Athletic League champion Patrick Henry (10-0) on Friday at 7:30 p.m. The winner will play either Ashland Crestview (9-1) or Jeromesville Hillsdale (8-2) Nov. 13.
"We knew even mid-year that if we had a chance to get in, we would get in as a No. 7 or 8 seed and we knew we would draw somebody at the top of the region or at the top of the state (poll)," Northwood coach Ken James said. "If we want to get where we want to go as a program, we're going to have to play teams like this. We're going to have to play at this level and compete against them.
"No matter who we draw, we know it's going to be a tough one. There are no cupcakes here," he said.
Northwood, the No. 8 seed in the Region 18 computer ratings, made the Division VI playoffs from 2001-04, and have a 1-4 all-time playoff mark. The Rangers were just three boys over the state cutoff in football from competing in Division VI this season.
Reaching the postseason didn't seem to be a possibility for the Rangers at the midway point of the season. Northwood had a 2-3 record and had suffered blowout losses to Lakota (26-0), Hopewell-Loudon (41-22) and Genoa (48-6). Hopewell-Loudon (D-VI) and fourth-ranked Genoa (D-IV) both made the playoffs.
James, in his 24th year at Northwood, said his team didn't talk about making the playoffs after its 2-3 start.
"It didn't look too promising," James said. "We knew one more loss would knock us out. With the situation we had been in before, at 9-1 we couldn't get in so we thought 7-3 would be a longshot. But, some teams ahead of us got knocked off and gave us that opportunity.
"When we were 2-3, we knew we had played some tough teams but we were also aware that we had not played our best game yet. We had played hard, but we had not been efficient and sound in what we had done."
The Rangers finished the season with 19 turnovers, with 14 of those coming in the first five games. They also created 20 turnovers, but only seven of those came in the first five weeks.
"Through Week 5 we were not protecting the ball enough," James said. "That's something we had to get better at. It was a week-to-week process for us, shifting guys around. We made practices more physical and that helped us a bunch. Every Tuesday was competition Tuesday and it made guys compete for jobs. Guys practiced awfully hard and that helped us get better."
A James-coached Northwood team has never faced Patrick Henry, which is one of six undefeated teams in Division V.
The Patriots, who are making their 12th appearance in the playoffs, have been to the playoffs eight straight years. Their 2005 team finished 15-0 and defeated unbeaten Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy 42-30 in the Division V state title game.
Northwood has outscored its opposition 369-241 this season, while Patrick Henry, which finished 10-0 for the second straight year, outscored its opposition 419-102, with two shutouts.
The combined record of Northwood's 10 opponents is 51-49, while the Patriots' opponents finished 52-48. Patrick Henry handed 12th-ranked Leipsic its only loss of the season and also defeated four other teams - Liberty Center (7-3), Bryan (8-2), Archbold (6-4) and Eastwood (8-2) - with winning records, by a combined margin of 183-72.
Leipsic (D-VI), Bryan (D-III) and Eastwood (D-IV) all made the playoffs.
"Our margin for error is really small," James said of Friday's matchup. "They remind us a lot of Hopewell-Loudon and Genoa in that they do everything well. They're quick on defense so they put a lot of pressure on you. We're going to have to be aggressive and fundamentally sound and go in with the mindset that we're going to compete for the entire 48 minutes. Eliminating penalties will be crucial this week."
The Patriots' top offensive weapon is senior tailback Justin Buenger, who sat out last week's 41-7 rout of Wauseon. Buenger has rushed for 1,428 yards and 26 touchdowns on 145 carries (9.9 average) and is the second-leading scorer in the state, with 186 points (31 total TDs).
Northwood distributes the ball to a handful of running backs led by leading rusher Zach Bermejo, who also starts at outside linebacker. Bermejo has rushed for 810 yards and 13 touchdowns on 102 carries; he is also the Rangers' leading receiver, with 12 catches for 173 yards and three TDs.
"He could easily have run for 1,600 yards if we gave him the ball enough," James said.
Junior quarterback Erik Russell is 35-for-65 passing for 405 yards and five TDs, with three interceptions. Junior outside linebacker Mike Prothero is Northwood's top tackler, with 82, and junior safety Jake Pressley has four interceptions.
James said he realizes a lot of people are already writing off his squad against Patrick Henry.
"We're an eight seed and they're the No. 1 team in the state, so that's only natural," he said. "The only people we care about is the people in our locker room. Our players have learned about competition enough to not mind being in that situation, so they're not going to be affected by what people say about us. We're going to show up on Friday with the intention of playing the best game we can possibly play. Our focus is always on being the best team we can be."