Despite an early exit from the playoffs, Hilliard Darby High School football coach John Santagata likes the fact that his team made its second consecutive postseason appearance for the first time in its 17-year history.
Seeded 12th in Division I, Region 2, the Panthers lost to fifth-seeded and host Huber Heights Wayne 37-7 in the first round of the playoffs Nov. 9 to finish 8-3 overall.
This marked the fourth consecutive season -- and sixth in the last seven -- that Darby has finished with a winning record. The Panthers, who finished with a winning record in only one of their first 10 seasons, have qualified for the playoffs three of the last four years and four of the last seven.
"I don't want us to be known as a one-season team," said Santagata, who has a 43-20 record in his six seasons at Darby. "I'd prefer to be known as a program that makes it to the playoffs most years, and I think we're getting there. We certainly took another step in the right direction this season."
Darby went 5-0 against teams that finished with a losing record but only 2-3 against teams that finished with a winning record, defeating Dublin Scioto (28-17 on Oct. 18) and Bradley (19-16 in overtime Nov. 1) and losing to Davidson (21-0 on Sept. 6), Westerville Central (35-21 on Oct. 25) and Wayne.
Wayne improved to 10-1 and advanced to play 13th-seeded Dublin Coffman in the second round Saturday, Nov. 16.
Darby also played a team that finished .500 in Westerville South, winning 52-17 on Oct. 11. In that contest, the Panthers scored on their first seven possessions and held a 45-3 lead early in the fourth quarter.
"Our best game was Westerville South because our defense played well as a whole and our offense never punted the ball," senior linebacker Trevor Parker said.
Darby finished 6-1 in the OCC-Cardinal Division to place second, behind Westerville Central (7-0) and ahead of Bradley (5-2), Scioto (4-3), Westerville South (3-4), Dublin Jerome (2-5), Westerville North (1-6) and Canal Winchester (0-7).
"Our win against Hilliard Bradley showed a lot about our team's character," Parker said. "That was the first time we've had to go to a fifth quarter to win a game and that was a lot like a playoff game because we needed to win it to keep our season alive."
The Panthers' spread-option offense loses eight senior starters in quarterback Nate Green, linemen Tony Hajjar, Josh Humbert and David Still, tight end Kyle Mullins, running backs Hunter McSweeney and Jacob Stacy and fullback Anton Trapasso.
Green was 49-for-87 passing for 700 yards with seven touchdowns and six interceptions and rushed for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns on 182 carries.
Trapasso rushed for 400 yards and four touchdowns on 80 carries, Stacy ran for 345 yards and five scores on 52 carries and McSweeney had 228 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 49 carries.
Green, Hajjar, Humbert and Still were named first-team all-league and McSweeney and Stacy were second-team all-league.
Four players who started multiple games on offense are expected back in junior linemen Chad Miller and Nick Zawodney, junior wide receiver Zack Donatelli and junior fullback Lorenzo McLaurin.
McLaurin rushed for 570 yards and eight touchdowns on 136 carries and Donatelli had eight receptions for 199 yards and four touchdowns.
Darby's 4-3 defense loses six senior starters in Parker, linemen Brian Casey, Humbert and Kyle Knudsen and backs McSweeney and Devon Rogers.
Casey had 9.5 tackles for loss and was first-team all-league. Rogers was honorable mention all-league.
Six players who started multiple games on defense are expected back in sophomore lineman Jake Harms, junior Ben Radcliff and sophomore Braeden Hook at linebacker and Donatelli and juniors Trevor Cox and Dwayne Oates in the secondary.
Cox and Radcliff were second-team all-league and Donatelli and Oates were special mention all-league.
Leading Darby in tackles through the regular season were Parker (89), Radcliff (66), Hook (52), Donatelli (45) and Cox (44).
Harms and Humbert had six and three sacks, respectively, to combine for nine of Darby's 15 sacks.
Green made second-team all-league as a punter and junior Ryan Kasprzak is expected to return as the place-kicker.
"I'm really happy with our senior leadership and how our kids came together and played as a team," Santagata said. "We have to replace a lot of key players, so we'll need to have a real good offseason to find guys to fill those spots."