Hilliard Darby High School boys soccer coach Johnny Ulry was confident his team would have a good season despite losing its best defender in Chris Johnson to graduation and its best forward in junior Nate Kohl to the Columbus Crew Academy.
The third-year coach admits, however, that he never guessed the Panthers would put together the best season in program history.
Darby went 6-1 in the OCC-Cardinal Division to win its first outright league title.
The Panthers also had a team-record 10 shutouts, gave up a record-low 15 goals and won a team-record nine consecutive games en route to setting a record for wins in a season with a 15-2-2 overall mark.
"We lost some great players, but this group pulled together and redefined Darby soccer," said Ulry, who was the district and OCC-Cardinal Coach of the Year. "We broke every significant program record at Darby and made it further in the (Division I district) tournament than this team has ever been. We were two goals short of our season scoring record (45), which we set last year, and we earned the respect of the other coaches in the area with the season we had."
The Panthers beat Bradley 4-3 on Oct. 9 to clinch the OCC-Cardinal title and win the Hilliard Cup, after also tying Davidson at 1 on Sept. 6. The Hilliard Cup goes to the local team that fares the best against the other Hilliard squads, and Bradley and Davidson played to a scoreless tie Oct. 15.
Darby was followed in the OCC-Cardinal by Westerville Central (4-1-2), Westerville North (4-2-1), Westerville South (3-1-3), Worthington Kilbourne (3-4), Dublin Jerome (1-4-2), Bradley (1-5-1) and Dublin Scioto (1-5-1).
"That was the first time we've ever beaten Bradley and it was important because we won the OCC and Hilliard Cup at their place in a hard-fought game," Ulry said.
The third-seeded Panthers opened the district tournament Oct. 20 at home with a 4-0 win over Zanesville before beating Olentangy 2-1 in double overtime in a semifinal Oct. 24 at home.
Sophomore forward Ryan Kasprzak scored in the second half and in the second overtime to beat Olentangy.
Darby then lost to second-seeded Gahanna 2-0 in a district final Oct. 27 at Westerville South.
"Winning a district semifinal the way we did was a huge step for our program," Ulry said. "The next step will be taking home a district championship."
Darby loses eight senior starters in Jacob Atkinson (forward), Jensen Culley (forward), A.J. Gaietto (center midfielder), Cameron Howard (defense), Kyle Kaplan (goalkeeper), Zach Kuebler (defender), Gage Toy (forward) and Jeff Tuckett (defender).
Kuebler was first-team all-district and all-league.
Atkinson (10 goals, 9 assists) and Tuckett were third-team all-district and first-team all-league.
Kaplan and Toy were second-team all-league, and Gaietto was special mention all-league.
"Our seniors were the glue that kept us together and the heart of this team," Ulry said.
Three starters are expected to return in Kasprzak and juniors Alex Keller (defender) and Brian Lee (midfielder).
Lee was second-team all-league and Kasprzak was honorable mention all-league.
"We've got some good players to build around next season," Ulry said.
Jaguars looking to build on season
Bradley finished 3-10-4 overall, losing at fifth-seeded Westerville Central 3-1 in its Division I district tournament opener Oct. 20.
The Jaguars started 0-3-1 before beating Westerville South 2-1 on Sept. 4 and tying Pickerington North at 2 on Sept. 6.
Bradley also beat Worthington Christian 2-0 on Sept. 20 and Watkins Memorial 1-0 on Sept. 22, but it went 0-4-2 to close the regular season.
"I know that the results don't show it, but I'm happy with what we accomplished for being (an inexperienced) team," coach Patrick Billman said. "We played real well against a good Westerville South opponent, and we showed great character to come back from a 2-0 deficit against Pickerington North. Worthington Christian was a good win because they made it to the Division III state tournament."
The Jaguars had five senior starters in Jared Daniel (defender), Ben Fitzpatrick (center midfielder) and Joe Krochmal (goalie), Jacob Miller (left defender) and Michael Warner (center defender).
Fitzpatrick, who had two goals and five assists, was second-team all-district and first-team all-league.
Starters expected to return include juniors Robert Castillo (outside midfielder), Alex Lanfear (outside midfielder), Jeff Ireland (center midfielder) and Riley Uhrin (center midfielder) and freshman forward Brady Whittekind.
Castillo, Lanfear and Whittekind each scored three goals.
Lanfear was second-team all-league and Ireland was honorable mention all-league.
"This season was definitely something to build on for the future," Billman said. "We just need to get better as coaches and as players."
Wildcats experienced 'ups and downs'
Davidson finished 6-6-5 overall with a 3-1 loss to 11th-seeded Thomas Worthington in the second round of the Division I district tournament Oct. 20.
Davidson tied Marysville for fourth in the OCC-Central at 3-2-2, behind Olentangy Liberty (6-1), Dublin Coffman (5-2) and Thomas (4-1-2) and ahead of Upper Arlington (2-4-1), Westland (1-5-1) and Central Crossing (0-7).
The Wildcats beat Worthington Christian 1-0 on Oct. 4 before going 0-1-3 in their last four regular-season games and losing their district opener.
"Beating UA (2-0 on Sept. 18) and Thomas Worthington (3-1 on Oct. 2) were the highlights of our season ... but we had a lot of ups and downs," senior forward Trevor Lewis said. "We couldn't all get on the same page on the field and we were inconsistent."
The Wildcats lose eight senior starters in Joe Justus (forward), Lewis, Kyle Martin (sweeper), Garrett Kenny (stopper), Andrew Myers (outside midfielder), Robert Perry (outside midfielder), Luis Rosas (forward) and Erision Tahiraj (defender).
Lewis and Martin were first-team all-league, and Rosas was special mention all-league.
Six players who started multiple games are expected back in junior goalie Philip Ferguson, junior outside midfielder Rylee Moore, sophomore center midfielder Andrew Chiou and freshmen Jake Etnyre (outside midfielder), Jake Felicity (defender) and Ryan Lang (center midfielder).
Chiou was second-team all-league. Etnyre was honorable mention all-league and had six goals.
"This was a rebuilding season, but the good thing about having such a young team is we'll have a lot of guys returning next year, so things are looking up for our program," Lewis said.