The longest ongoing playoff drought in Licking County appears to be over.

The longest ongoing playoff drought in Licking County appears to be over.

According to JoeEitel.com, the Heath High School football team clinched its first postseason berth in more than a generation before concluding the regular season last Friday against winless Lakewood. The Ohio High School Athletic Association will release the final Harbin computer rankings today.

"Our guys have done the math and they're telling us we're in, too," coach Mark Collier said.

If so, the Bulldogs will play their first postseason game in 19 years on Saturday in a Division IV regional quarterfinal. Coming off a 39-6 MSL-Ohio Division victory over Bexley on Oct. 23, Heath was 7-2 overall and ranked third in Region 15.

Still, enthusiasm was tempered last week as the Bulldogs tried to stave off the flu that was running through their locker room. They hoped to remain as focused as possible with a possible home playoff game hanging in the balance. They also were dealing with Charles Gresham's ankle injury that forced him to miss all but a few plays against Bexley.

"We've got to go beat Lakewood first and then we'll worry about the playoffs," junior quarterback Cole Benner said.

Benner and his teammates weren't even born when the Bulldogs made their playoff debut against Crooksville on Nov. 2, 1990. Running back Fred Stinson rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in Zanesville's Memorial Stadium, and kicker Adam Lanthorn atoned for missing the extra-point by converting a 21-yard field goal late in the game for the decisive points in a 9-7 victory. That was Lanthorn's first field-goal attempt of the season.

Heath lost 19-12 against Coal Grove Dawson-Bryant a week later during the regional championship game in Portsmouth to finish 10-2. Quarterback Tyson Powell drove the Bulldogs 40 yards to the Coal Grove 25 on its final possession, but an intentional-grounding call and then an interception sealed the team's fate.

"Fifteen or 20 years from now, I think these guys will be able to appreciate what they've done a little more," Collier said of this year's accomplishment. "Right now, I don't think they really realize how special it is."

After averaging 44 points in a 3-0 start, the Bulldogs dropped their MSL-Ohio opener 21-19 on Sept. 18 at Licking Valley. They bounced back with a 28-27 victory a week later against Newark Catholic and a 47-27 victory over Columbus Academy on Oct. 9 to score key computer points. Entering last Friday, the Green Wave was 6-3 while the Vikings were 7-2 with both teams in playoff position in their respective regions. Non-league Utica also was 6-3, despite falling 41-27 to Heath on Sept. 11.

The Bulldogs featured the county's top offense through nine games by averaging 37.7 points, with Gresham taking the lead role before injuring his knee in a 34-7 loss Oct. 16 at Granville. He had rushed for 1,729 yards and 28 touchdowns entering last Friday, averaging 10.4 yards on 166 carries.

Gresham's backups have been freshman Tyler Williams and junior Nelson Scott, who normally is the starting fullback. Scott rushed for 904 yards and was averaging 8.4 yards on 106 attempts through nine games. Benner stepped up against the Lions with his best all-around effort. He rushed for 88 yards and threw for another 159. Justyn Eckard has helped anchor an opportunistic defense with five interceptions.

"It's day-to-day with (Gresham)," said Collier, who wasn't sure how much his star senior would play against the Lancers. "We just want to make sure he's ready for week 11."

It sounds as if the team's fans will be ready for an 11th game as well, and that's especially satisfying given the long wait.

•PLAYOFF NUMBERS -- Licking Valley will miss the postseason for the first time since 2004 and for only the second time this decade. If Granville qualifies again, it will improve the county's longest current playoff streak at three consecutive seasons, and Newark Catholic's possible inclusion would give the area three playoff teams for a second straight year.

A record five teams (Licking Valley, Granville, Johnstown, Licking Heights and Newark Catholic) made it in 2007.