Mike Lanza realizes his Grove City High School football team will receive a test in his first game as coach.
The Dawgs play host Friday, Aug. 29, to Hilliard Davidson, which defeated Grove City 28-19 in last year's opener on its way to a 13-1 record. The Wildcats went on to reach the Division I, Region 2 final, which they lost 13-11 to eventual state champion Cincinnati Moeller.
Although Davidson coach Brian White said his squad lacks experience, Lanza expects to face another talented Wildcats team.
"Hilliard Davidson is one of those programs that just reloads every year and they're always going to be good," said Lanza, who took over after Matt Jordan resigned. "They're pretty much going to be in the playoffs every year. They're just one of those kind of programs."
The Dawgs, who finished 6-4 overall and 5-2 in the OCC-Ohio Division last season, have switched from a triple-option offense to a combination of a power running game with play-action passing.
Lanza expects a competition for the starting quarterback job early in the season, as senior R.J. Gilliland (5-foot-8, 160 pounds) and sophomore Riley Cooper (6-0, 191) both are expected to play.
Gilliland saw limited time behind 2014 graduate Cameron Meece last season. Meece rushed for 996 yards and passed for 689, and was named first-team all-league and special mention all-district.
In the backfield, Lanza is going with a "running back by committee." Senior Peyton Bowyer (6-0, 180) and junior Xavier Moore (5-7, 180) should share time at tailback, with seniors Ryan Grooms (6-3, 225) and Vennie Sapp (5-10, 190) at fullback.
Bowyer and Sapp also will be key players in the team's 4-3 defense at linebacker.
"Davidson is one of those teams that never beats themselves and tries to use a lot of the clock, and they play great defense," said Lanza, who guided Gahanna to a 90-49 record from 1995-2007. "You have to be able to be very efficient in what you do because when you don't have the ball for very long, they are probably going to have it for their share of minutes. You have to make sure that you take advantage of the opportunities you're given."
White said his team will be challenged to reach last season's level, but hopes it contends for a fifth consecutive OCC-Central title. Last season, the Wildcats went 7-0 in the league.
He is looking forward to the matchup against Grove City.
"Football is important to the school there, it's important to that community, so you have kids who grow up wanting to be a Grove City football player," White said. "When they get their opportunity, they're going to do their best to play hard and be physical kids and that is what that community has been known for."
Davidson returns four full-time starters, including just one on offense in junior center Kyle Bessen (6-0, 270). The defense returns senior linebacker Markus Bailey (6-2, 220), who has committed to Purdue, senior linebacker Ben Brooks (5-8, 193) and junior nose guard Zac Uphouse (6-1, 205).
Junior quarterback Jack Klein (6-0, 176) will direct the team's triple-option offense, with Bailey expected to see time at running back. Last season, Bailey rushed for 441 of the team's 2,003 yards.
"Our kids are going to have to be technically sound," White said. "We're going to have to do the fundamentals well, which we did not do against Dublin Scioto (in a scrimmage Aug. 16)."
Central Crossing coach optimistic
Central Crossing coach Chris Harr believes this is the deepest and most talented team in his five seasons at the school.
The Comets play host to Mount Vernon on Friday, Aug. 29.
"We can't wait," Harr said. "This has been one of our better offseasons and preseasons, probably the best one we've ever had. We're pretty excited about getting ready to go."
Last season, the Comets finished 2-8 overall and 1-6 in the OCC-Central. Mount Vernon was 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the OCC-Capital.
The teams last met in 2005, with Central Crossing winning 21-13 when both were members of the OCC-Central.
Senior Nick Cobb (6-1, 200) is expected to start at quarterback for the Comets in place of 2014 graduate Luke Duncan. Cobb played wide receiver last season.
Mount Vernon's offense will be led by senior running back J.D. Orr (5-11, 205), who was selected first-team all-state last season in Division II. In the last two seasons, Orr has 3,082 yards rushing and 32 touchdowns.
Senior quarterback Ryan Fitzgerald (5-11, 185) also returns for the Yellow Jackets. He rushed for 714 yards and 13 touchdowns and passed for 1,034 yards and eight scores last season.
"Their tailback and quarterback are very good," Harr said. "They're going to find ways to get those kids the ball. If you want to beat them, you have to stop that tailback."
Mount Vernon also returns four of five starters on the offensive line.