The Hilliard Darby High School football team earned the best record in program history this season, finishing 11-1 overall after losing to Pickerington North 24-14 in a Division I, Region 3 semifinal on Nov. 10 at Gahanna.
The Panthers posted their first undefeated regular season, won their first league title outright by going 7-0 in the OCC-Cardinal Division and tied the program record for wins in a season, matching the 2007 team that finished 11-2.
"I feel like we were able to do something special this year by putting our mark on Darby history and putting Darby football back on the map," senior quarterback and defensive back Chase Longwell said. "Having a season like this is something all of us seniors dreamed about since we were in middle school, and it feels good to know that we had one of the best seasons in Darby's history."
During the regular season, the Panthers beat four opponents that had a winning record in Davidson (17-3 on Aug. 31), Westerville South (28-14 on Oct. 5), Dublin Scioto (28-24 on Oct. 12) and Westerville Central (29-7 on Oct. 19).
Darby defeated Bradley 42-0 in its regular-season finale on Oct. 26 to clinch the OCC-Cardinal championship outright. Scioto (6-1) was second, followed by Westerville South (5-2), Westerville Central (4-3), Dublin Jerome (3-4), Worthington Kilbourne (2-5), Bradley (1-6) and Westerville North (0-7).
"Beating the other two Hilliard teams was big because it brought a lot of pride to our school and made people feel proud to go to Darby again," Longwell said. "Our league was very tough this year, so it was a big accomplishment to go undefeated in the OCC-Cardinal."
The top seed in the region, Darby opened the playoffs with a 31-10 win over eighth-seeded Westerville South on Nov. 3 at home before losing to fourth-seeded Pickerington North.
"Those last four games of our regular season stand out to me as highlights because we faced big challenges week in and week out and we stayed extremely composed through it all," said coach John Santagata, who was named OCC-Cardinal Coach of the Year. "Both Westerville South games were big because they were the most athletic team we faced and we found a way to slow down their offense both times. Dublin Scioto was an exciting win, too."
The Panthers' spread option offense loses seven senior starters in Longwell, running backs Michael Porter and Hayden VanKirk, wide receiver Caleb Day, tight end Alex Martin, guard Stephan Hernon and tackle Zack Williams.
Day had 32 receptions for 490 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for 463 yards and nine scores on 60 carries and shared OCC-Cardinal Player of the Year honors with Scioto wide receiver Tim Shadoan and Jerome running back Donovan Wilson.
Longwell, who was 53-for-88 passing for 888 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception and rushed for 964 yards and 15 touchdowns on 154 carries, was special mention all-district and first-team all-league.
Hernon and Williams were second-team all-district and first-team all-league.
VanKirk, who rushed for 819 yards and 10 touchdowns on 158 carries, was honorable mention all-district and first-team all-league, and Porter, who rushed for 344 yards and four touchdowns on 53 carries, was second-team all-league.
Offensive starters expected to return are guard Tony Hajjar, tackle Josh Humbert, wide receiver Devon Rogers, slotback Jacob Stacy and center David Still. All five are juniors.
Humbert was second-team all-league and Hajjar and Still were special mention all-league. Stacy, who rushed for 164 yards and two touchdowns and had four receptions for 86 yards, was honorable mention all-league.
Darby's 4-3 defense featured eight senior starters in ends Joe Casey and Hernon, linebacker Cameron Kohl, backs Devon Booth, Day, Longwell and Sam Valenti and Williams at tackle.
Day had 45 tackles, five interceptions, broke up 13 passes and recovered two fumbles and was named first-team all-district on defense.
Kohl, who had 148 tackles, five sacks, broke up three passes and caused a fumble, was first-team all-district and all-league, and Valenti, who had 49 tackles, two interceptions and broke up six passes, was second-team all-league.
Defensive starters expected back are junior tackle Brian Casey and junior linebackers Nate Green and Trevor Parker.
Green also handled the punting duties, averaging 36.7 yards per punt, and was special mention all-district and second-team all-league. Parker had 76 tackles and two sacks and was second-team all-league.
The Panthers also lose senior place-kicker Kyle Kaplan, who was special mention all-district and first-team all-league.
"Our seniors were a great group of leaders with a strong work ethic," Santagata said. "Obviously, we're losing a strong senior class and we'll need to replace a lot of good kids, so we'll need next year's seniors to step up and lead us."