Following four consecutive Division III playoff berths, a state semifinal appearance last year and a trip to the state final in 2007, the post-Storm Klein era officially is under way in Hanover now that Klein is playing linebacker at Ohio State.

Following four consecutive Division III playoff berths, a state semifinal appearance last year and a trip to the state final in 2007, the post-Storm Klein era officially is under way in Hanover now that Klein is playing linebacker at Ohio State.

"He was quite a presence, no question," Licking Valley High School football coach Randy Baughman said. "But we've had a couple of real good senior classes come through here. It wasn't just Storm we (graduated)."

And it would be foolish to write off this team, because it's said that tradition never graduates.

The Panthers are 100-18 overall since the start of the 2000 season. They have won 12 or more games in six of those nine seasons and qualified for the postseason in eight of them.

"I think the bull's-eye on our backs might be bigger this year than other years because people aren't expecting as much out of us. That's motivation right there," senior Eric Mitchell said. "Some people are counting us out already but Valley football's not going to change."

The Panthers finished 12-2 overall a year ago and won a fourth consecutive outright MSL-Ohio Division title at 7-0 as the team's league winning streak reached 32 games.

The Panthers lost 17-10 to Big Walnut in the state final two years ago and 14-10 to Eastmoor Academy in a state semifinal last season, with Klein plugging holes in both near-misses as the centerpiece of the defense.

Now it's Mitchell's turn. Ditto for so many others, even if the participation level has dipped to 50 or so players in grades 10-12 and the next class with comparable physical size to the past few is the incoming freshmen.

Mitchell (5-11, 185 pounds) is a returning starter at fullback and is moving from defensive end to replace Klein at middle linebacker. Klein, a four-year starter at tailback who didn't play on defense until he was a junior, departed not only with hundreds of tackles but also 99 touchdowns and the Central District's career rushing record (6,304 yards).

Mitchell has some big cleats to fill defensively.

"Tell me about it," he said, laughing. "He's a friend of mine and we're going to miss him on the field, but it's time for me and everyone else to step up."

Senior Brock Mitchell (6-2, 205) also returns at linebacker and is joined by classmate Matt Hummel (6-1, 175), who was listed as a strong safety a year ago. It's a smaller, quicker defense, and the linemen will include senior Josh Ghiloni (6-0, 190) and junior Josh Gordon (6-0, 215) on the ends and Chase Redman (5-11, 215) at one of the tackle spots. Several of the offensive linemen will contribute on defense as well.

The secondary includes senior Mitch Flowers (5-9, 155) at free safety and junior Alex Ratai (6-1, 180) at strong safety with junior Tregg Hall (5-10, 165) and senior Jared Snider (5-10, 160) at the corners, among others.

Offensively, senior Jake Smith (5-11, 175) is the new quarterback after Ryan threw for 19 touchdowns and rushed for 17 more.

"He saw some snaps early last year," Baughman said of Smith. "We don't put a lot of burden on our quarterback, anyway. We keep things simple for all our kids, really. We're not a spread offense where the quarterback has to make all the decisions. Our quarterbacks just have to make good decisions."

Behind Smith, Hall will be the tailback and Redman is another fullback. Hall played quite a bit during last year's postseason run as Baughman tried to save Klein's legs for defense. Flowers and Ratai both played receiver as well and the newcomers include Snider.

Up front, Gordon is moving from center to right guard and senior Dylan Osborne (6-0, 230), who missed the second half a year ago with a knee injury, is moving from guard to right tackle. They are the two returning offensive starters. Also look for seniors Ben Lough (5-11, 190) at left guard and Josh O'Donnell (5-11, 190) at center. The left tackle is senior Rick Whyde (6-6, 265), who has trimmed down after playing at nearly 300 pounds a year ago. Brock Mitchell and Ghiloni are the tight ends, but Baughman would like to improve his depth on the line.

"They'll be a lot of new names, a lot of new faces," said Baughman, who is 234-71-1 entering his 27th season at Licking Valley.. "We just have to hope we have our new guys ready to step in."