After several years of dominance by the Licking Valley High School football team, the chase for the MSL-Ohio Division title involved multiple contenders last season before Granville and Columbus Academy ended up sharing the championship. Look for more of the same in 2010.

After several years of dominance by the Licking Valley High School football team, the chase for the MSL-Ohio Division title involved multiple contenders last season before Granville and Columbus Academy ended up sharing the championship.
Look for more of the same in 2010.

"It'll shape up like last year," Heath coach Mark Collier said. "There are five schools out there with a chance."

Still, the Bulldogs have been anointed the preseason favorite by many of the coaches in the league after placing third a year ago at 5-2. The Blue Aces and Vikings both finished 6-1.

Heath returns nine starters on defense and seven on offense, although the Bulldogs are not without their concerns. Running back Charles Gresham graduated after being named the Division IV district Offensive Player of the Year, and three key members of the offensive line departed as well.

"All that stuff is meaningless," Collier said of the fact that several of his peers are picking his team to win it. "It's such a grind, and I can't see anybody taking down all five of us. Besides, things can change in a hurry when you've got so many teams in the mix."

Coming off a sixth-place finish in 2008, the Vikings were the surprise of the league a year ago. They rallied from a big deficit to stun Granville 36-35 in their MSL-Ohio opener and rarely looked back. They also defeated Licking Valley for the first time since the league was created in 2003 behind a 47-14 victory.

The only thing that stopped the Vikings from winning the title outright was Gresham's 404-yard, six-touchdown performance as the Bulldogs won 47-27 in week four of league play.
"(The Granville victory) was a great game for us last year," Academy coach Mark Barren said. "It's a game and a win that turned our season and started to give us confidence."

The Panthers - who won four outright titles and shared another from 2003-08 - had no such good fortune despite beating Heath 21-19 in their MSL-Ohio opener when the Bulldogs failed to convert a two-point conversion in the closing seconds.
The league's depth eventually pulled down Licking Valley, which saw its 34-game MSL-Ohio winning streak end with a 35-12 loss at Granville.

The fourth-place Panthers nonetheless played a role in the final standings as their win prevented Heath from earning a piece of the title. The Bulldogs also lost 34-7 at Granville when Gresham left the game in the first half with an injury.
"One down year doesn't mean Valley's going away," Granville coach J.R. Wait said. "It's still kind of their league."

Starting quarterbacks are back for the Panthers (Braynt Trout), Academy (Josh Hill) and Heath (Cole Benner). Both Hill and Benner threw for more than 1,000 yards a year ago.

The Vikings also return the league's best tandem of running backs in Preston Pearson (1,010 yards, 16 touchdowns) and Austin Peterman (985 yards, 14 touchdowns). Heath's Nelson Scott also cracked the 1,000-yard barrier, and both Newark Catholic and Licking Valley return veteran backfields. Granville's Josh McKenzie, who averaged 21.6 yards on 38 receptions a year ago, is the league's most dangerous downfield receiver.

Newark Catholic's Zack Shane and Granville's Kirk Willis are among the top linemen. Shane has received a scholarship offer from Youngstown State, and Willis has committed to Cincinnati as a long snapper.

The Bulldogs boast a nasty set of linebackers anchored by Travis Drumm, and Granville's Ty Compton might be the best cornerback in one-on-one coverage.

The Blue Aces also seem to be the most settled on special teams with the return of place-kicker Ryan Green and punter James Datz, who is drawing interest from Football Bowl Subdivision schools (formerly Division I-A).

"Expect the unexpected," Newark Catholic coach Bill Franks said. "There's always talent in this league, and this year's no exception."

Another aspect that might not change is the fact that home-field advantage played a key role last season. Academy, Granville, Newark Catholic and Heath all swept their home league games, and the only real road upset came when the Green Wave defeated Licking Valley 34-21 to post their first win over the Panthers since 1987.

To that end, Franks must be savoring the fact that the Green Wave has four of their seven MSL-Ohio games at White Field and the opponents are Heath (Sept. 25), Academy (Oct. 2), Licking Valley (Oct. 16) and Granville (Oct. 30).

The championship likely won't be decided until the final week, but another key two-week stretch has the Bulldogs playing at Academy on Oct. 8 before Granville visits on Oct. 15.

Meanwhile, fans won't have to wait long to see one of the marquee matchups. The defending co-champion Vikings and Blue Aces clash once again in the opening week of MSL-Ohio play on Sept. 16 at Granville. That game will be played on a Thursday in observance of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur.

"On paper, Heath is the favorite with so many two- and three-year starters back, but everybody's got a tough road to take," Licking Valley coach Randy Baughman said. "You'll probably see the league champion with a loss or two."