The Canal Winchester High School football team didn't appear to be headed for its fifth playoff appearance in the last six years and its seventh overall after losing two of its first three games.
But the Indians won their final seven regular-season games to secure a Division II, Region 7 playoff berth and win the MSL-Buckeye Division title outright.
Seeded seventh in the region, Canal Winchester defeated second-seeded and host Zanesville 21-16 in the first round of the playoffs Nov. 2 before losing to third-seeded Marion-Franklin 44-14 in a region semifinal Nov. 9 at Hamilton Township to finish 9-3 overall.
"I can't say for sure that this is the best season in our program's history, but it matches up well with the best seasons we've had," coach Shawn Hinkle said. "We're only the third Canal Winchester team to run the table in our league and the second to win a playoff game. We're also the first to win a Division II playoff game and the first to win a playoff game on the road."
Canal Winchester's playoff record now stands at 2-7. Its other postseason win came in 2007, when it defeated Germantown Valley View 17-16 in the first round of the Division III, Region 12 playoffs.
The Indians opened with a 48-21 loss to Dublin Scioto on Aug. 24 at home. They then beat Delaware 42-23 on Aug. 31 on the road before falling to host Marion-Franklin 28-3 on Sept. 7. Scioto made the playoffs in Division I.
Canal Winchester then went 7-0 in the MSL-Cardinal, finishing ahead of Circleville (4-3), Logan Elm (4-3), Hamilton Township (4-3), Teays Valley (4-3), Bloom-Carroll (3-4), Amanda-Clearcreek (1-6) and Fairfield Union (1-6).
The Indians posted key wins on the road against Hamilton Township (28-7 on Oct. 5) and Circleville (21-6 on Oct. 26).
"When we started 1-2, we had our backs against the wall and we understood that we had to run the table in our league to make the playoffs," Hinkle said. "The fact that we won seven in a row like that speaks volumes about our kids and their character.
"The win at Hamilton Township was a big highlight because not many people gave us much of a chance going into it and we really dominated that game. Zanesville was the biggest highlight of the year because it was our first playoff win since 2007 and it meant a lot to our seniors."
Canal Winchester is losing 27 seniors, including nine starters from its spread offense in quarterback Isaac Pifer, running backs John Franklin and Jaquan Ransome, wide receiver Marquise Wheat, right tackle Zach Morehead, right guard Josh Miller, center Seth Wentzel, left guard Dalton McKee and left tackle Zach Huffer.
Ransome rushed for 1,076 yards and 17 touchdowns on 156 carries and was named second-team all-district and first-team all-league. Franklin ran for 890 yards and 10 scores on 178 carries and was honorable mention all-district and second-team all-league.
Pifer was 81-for-175 passing for 1,149 yards with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Miller was first-team all-league and Morehead and Wentzel were second-team and honorable mention all-league, respectively.
Offensive starters expected to return are junior running back Zach Bontempo, junior wide receiver Jalen Smith and sophomore wide receiver Skyler Scott.
Scott had 31 catches for 666 yards and six touchdowns and was honorable mention all-district and second-team all-league. Smith had 14 receptions for 132 yards, Bontempo had seven catches for 78 yards and Wheat had seven receptions for 54 yards.
Canal Winchester is losing seven senior starters from its 3-5 defense in linemen DeOntaye Cosby and Max Lacey, linebackers Ian Jones, Ransome, Keenan Tate and Nick Toledo and back Pat Bookman.
Cosby had 132 tackles, 26 tackles for loss (a total of minus-110 yards), 13 sacks, five forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one broken-up pass and was named district Defensive Player of the Year and MSL-Buckeye Lineman of the Year.
Toledo had 135 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles and was first-team all-district and all-league. Jones had 108 tackles and nine tackles for loss and was special mention all-district and first-team all-league.
Tate had 52 tackles and 10 sacks and was second-team all-league. Lacey, who had 53 tackles, nine tackles for loss and four sacks, and Bookman, who had 42 tackles, were honorable mention all-league.
Defensive starters expected to return are juniors Khari Golden and William Totten in the secondary and sophomore Lamont Martin and Scott at linebacker. Golden had 100 tackles, eight interceptions and two forced fumbles and was second-team all-district and second-team all-league.
The Indians also lose senior place-kicker Noah Ising but expect to return sophomore punter Elante Moore.
Ising made seven of 11 field-goal attempts and 41 of 42 extra-point attempts and was first-team all-district.
"All of our linemen, both offensive and defensive, were seniors, so that's where we'll need to fill a lot of gaps," Hinkle said. "We do have a lot of people coming back in our skill positions, though, so we'll build around those guys."
The Indians move to the OCC-Cardinal Division next year. The league also will consist of Dublin Jerome, Hilliard Bradley, Hilliard Darby, Scioto, Westerville Central, Westerville North and Westerville South.
"We'll be facing a lot of new teams and playing at a lot of new places, so it will be interesting," Hinkle said. "There are a lot of good teams in the OCC, so we'll have our work cut out for us."
Top runners expected back for boys, girls
The boys and girls cross country teams expect to return most of their runners who competed in the postseason.
The boys team loses only one of its seven runners who competed in the 13-team Division I, district 1 meet Oct. 20 at Watkins Memorial.
Freshman Wyatt Gardner led the Indians, placing 12th in 17 minutes, 27.3 seconds, followed by sophomore Jason Appel (32nd, 18:09.45), sophomore Bryce Carroll (67th, 19:07.04), freshman Robert Moore (70th, 19:16.3), senior Riley Collins (74th, 19:23.45), freshman Imani Daniels (78th, 19:33.84) and freshman Jamihran Jackson (82nd, 19:57.82).
The Indians scored 255 points at district to place ninth behind the five regional qualifiers in Westerville North (45), Pickerington North (48), Olentangy (97), St. Charles (132) and Pickerington Central (152).
Gardner advanced to the regional meet Oct. 27 at Pickerington North by finishing in the top 20. At regional, he finished 55th (17:15.33) as the top 16 individuals advanced to the state meet Nov. 3 at National Trail Raceway.
The girls team loses two runners who competed in the 14-team Division I, district 1 meet.
Freshman Cassidy Long led the Indians, placing 21st in 20:53.38, followed by freshman Megan Tamasovich (22nd, 21:03.08), freshman Chloe Palmer (24th, 21:08.81), senior Elizabeth Kifer (34th, 21:30.7), senior Taryn Meidl (42nd, 21:49.55), freshman Julia Cook (44th, 21:51.91) and sophomore Julie Tennison (49th, 22:17.78).
The Indians scored 143 points at district to finish sixth behind the five regional qualifiers in Hilliard Davidson (35), New Albany (84), Westerville North (98), Teays Valley (103) and Pickerington Central (135).
Long fell one spot shy of qualifying for regional.
Both the boys and girls teams finished second in the MSL-Buckeye meet Oct. 13 at Fairfield Union.
The boys scored 58 points to finish behind Teays Valley (39) and ahead of Hamilton Township (69), Fairfield Union (77) and Logan Elm (129), and the girls scored 59 points to finish behind Teays Valley (30) and ahead of Circleville (61), Logan Elm (109), Fairfield Union (116) and Hamilton Township (142).