The Whetstone High School football team didn't finish with a winning record, but first-year coach Don Poff doesn't believe it was a lost season.
"A lot of great things happened," he said.
The Braves finished 4-6 overall and went 3-4 in the City League-North Division to place fifth, behind Beechcroft (7-0), Brookhaven (6-1), Mifflin (5-2) and Northland (4-3) and ahead of Columbus East (2-5), Centennial (1-6) and Linden-McKinley (0-7).
Whetstone won only one of its first six games, beating Africentric (84-26 on Aug. 31) but losing to Hilliard Darby (71-28 on Aug. 24), Columbus Academy (55-12 on Sept. 7), Mifflin (60-24 on Sept. 14), Beechcroft (43-6 on Sept. 21) and Brookhaven (40-14 on Sept. 28).
Darby, which was ranked sixth in the final Division I state poll, improved to 11-0 with a 31-10 win over Westerville South in the first round of the Region 3 playoffs Nov. 3. Beechcroft made the playoffs in Division II, Region 7, losing to New Albany 25-6 in the first round Nov. 2 to finish 8-2.
The Braves finished strong, however, winning three of their last four games. They defeated East (26-20 on Oct. 5), Linden (34-0 on Oct. 12) and Centennial (26-20 on Oct. 26) and lost to Northland (34-28 on Oct. 19).
"There were small things they did well in every game," Poff said of his players. "But midway through the year, the kids started to believe we could accomplish some good things."
The win over Centennial stands out as a season highlight. The Braves trailed 14-0 in the first quarter but rallied to post its 10th consecutive victory over the Stars. The comeback was led by junior quarterback Ramroth Finnegan, who completed 25 of 43 passes for 261 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, and senior wide receiver Yusef Conteh, who had nine receptions for 121 yards and two touchdowns.
"In those rivalry games, it doesn't matter how good teams are, anything can happen," Poff said. "It was a very exciting football game. It didn't matter whether you were on our sideline or Centennial's. That was a great victory."
Whetstone loses 15 seniors, including linebackers Dezwan Polk and Danny Spencer, the Braves' only two defensive players who played last season.
Polk had 65 tackles (35 solo), 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, two fumble recoveries and an interception. According to Poff, he has drawn interest from some Division I college programs, including Purdue and Wisconsin.
"Those were the guys that brought the most to the defensive unit," Poff said of Polk and Spencer.
Junior lineman Jon White-oak is expected to lead the defense next season after having 44 tackles (15 solo), seven tackles for loss and five sacks.
The offense loses four starters on the line in seniors Ricky Cantor (center), Jean Iresne (tackle), Joel Paige (tackle) and Gabe Rife (guard).
Another key loss is Conteh, who was the team's leading receiver with 49 catches for 693 yards and nine touchdowns.
Among those expected to return are Finnegan and the rest of the receiving corps, including juniors Tony Cordetti, Trent Harper and Chris North and freshman Aiden Tuttle.
Finnegan was 187-for-358 passing for 2,458 yards with 20 touchdowns and rushed for 403 yards and three touchdowns on 92 carries. Against Darby, he threw for 517 yards, which at the time tied for the 19th-highest, single-game passing total in Ohio, according to the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Finnegan had four games passing for more than 300 yards.
Harper had 30 receptions for 449 yards and three touchdowns and was Whetstone's only two-way player, also starting at free safety. North had 39 catches for 333 yards and four scores, and Tuttle had 21 catches for 321 yards and three touchdowns.
"It's really exciting," Poff said. "We put in a whole new offense and all its aspects in the middle of June, but now they've all got a year under their belts. They know the routes now. They know what kind of coverage it's going to be."
Poff hopes the momentum the Braves gained late in the season carries over to the offseason as well as into next season.
"Our offense is going to come back strong and we've got a lot of kids coming back on defense as well," he said. "There's a lot of positive energy with the team and the parents and the school and the community. There's a lot of enthusiasm.
"It's going to be a great thing next year."
Volleyball coach surprised by season
Girls volleyball coach Errole Rembert was pleasantly surprised by what his team accomplished this season.
"The team out there this year I thought was going to be a rebuilding team for next year," he said. "I thought we'd be slow and pick it up next year. We came on a little quicker than I thought."
The Braves finished 14-8 overall and went 12-4 in the City-North to place second, behind Centennial (16-0) and ahead of Brookhaven (10-5), East (10-5), Northland (8-8), Beechcroft (6-10), Columbus International (6-10), Mifflin (3-13) and Linden (0-16).
"It took a lot of teamwork to get it done," Rembert said. "There were a few matches I wish we wouldn't have lost. But everything turned out well."
The Braves split a pair of matches during a tournament Sept. 8 in Toledo to take second place, beating Toledo Rogers 16-25, 24-26, 15-3 but falling to Toledo Emmanuel Baptist 25-19, 18-25, 15-7.
"We haven't won a match up there in several years," Rembert said.
Whetstone lost to Briggs 23-25, 25-18, 25-20, 23-25, 17-15 in the first round of the Division I district tournament Oct. 16.
"That was an outstanding match," Rembert said. "It went five (games) and it was just a super match."
Whetstone loses six seniors, including captains Audrey Bollas, Brianna Clemens and Danielle Fisher. Fisher played multiple positions and was named second-team all-league, and Bollas and Clemens were middle hitters who made honorable mention all-league.
"That leaves a hole in the middle," Rembert said of losing his team leaders. "Right now, I don't have anybody behind them with any experience to cover that."
Among those expected to return are juniors Ali Adelberger, Katie Elekes, Lisa Vo and Val Vokac and sophomore Maddie Wilming.
Adelberger, the team's setter, and Elekes, who played front row and back row, were first-team all-league.
"I would say 60 percent of the time, one of those two would touch the ball," Rembert said of Adelberger and Elekes. "They were very crucial to the success of the team."
Vo and Vokac each played in the back row this season but could end up playing multiple positions next season. Wilming is expected to replace Adelberger as setter.
"We're going to have a tough time matching what we did," Rembert said of next season's expectations. "I would hope we could do as well or better. I'd like to give Centennial a battle."