After producing its best season, the Licking Heights High School football team believes it has positioned itself well in preparation for the rebirth of the Licking County League next school year.
The Hornets finished 10-1 overall, losing to host Marion-Franklin 46-14 on Nov. 2 in the first round of the Division II, Region 7 playoffs.
"We'll have seven starters back on both sides of the ball. Coming off this season and headed into a league our kids are unfamiliar with, this was the perfect time to gain confidence and grow expectations," coach Darren Waters said. "It's going to be one heck of a league again."
The Hornets won their first league championship in 20 years by going 7-0 in their final season in the MSL-Cardinal Division. That helped them receive the sixth seed in the Region 7 playoffs.
It was the program's third trip to the postseason, but first in Division II.
The Hornets competed in Division V, Region 19 in 2001 and lost to Woodsfield Monroe Central 6-0 in the first round.
In 2007, Licking Heights went 1-1 in the Division IV, Region 15 playoffs. The Hornets beat Portsmouth 42-34 in the first round and lost to St. Clairsville 33-17 in a regional semifinal.
"You can see the growth in our school from 2001 until now," Waters said. "It happened quickly and it takes athletics some time to catch up to that larger competition. That's why now is an ideal time for us with the Licking County League. We outgrew the Mid-State League.
"For us to make the playoffs, we basically had to go 10-0 like we did this season. In the LCL, I don't think you'll have to be perfect just to qualify for the playoffs. Plus, the competition should prepare us for the postseason."
Licking Heights loses 14 seniors, including Josh Ausberry (FB), Willie Carter (LT), Steven Clum (C/DE), Taylor Curtiss (QB/OLB), Jake Foley (WR/CB), Andrew Giffin (OLB), C.R. Hall (K), Matt Mayville (LB), Brenden Tiller (G) and Michael Zaky (RT).
"This group of seniors was special," Waters said. "They were not the most athletic group we've had here, but definitely were the most coachable. They were willing to do whatever it took to help the team succeed.
"They genuinely care about each other and growing the program -- and boy did they grow it. They were very nurturing, like (having) other coaches out there. They brought along the underclassmen, showed them how to do things. I really enjoy the type of people we have in the program. We have a lot of class and that comes from kids with good families. These kids definitely left their mark on this program."
The preseason didn't start well, as senior standout Ronnie Dawson was injured during a non-contact drill and missed the season. Coming off a 5-5 season and losing its best athlete caused Licking Heights some concerns.
"I thought his knee injury was really going to hurt us," Waters said. "He's the best high school football player I ever coached. He has natural ability and instinct, is a competitor and has top-notch character. Everything on offense was geared to be around him at tailback. On defense, he was going to be a third-year starter at inside linebacker."
Junior Ron Carruthers-Kimball and sophomore Kendall Bradley filled in and provided a strong rotation at tailback.
"I am very proud of what these players and coaches did," Waters said. "We went 5-5 last season and it left a bad taste in our mouths. We worked extremely hard and had big goals. We wanted more and didn't get it, but the kids' mentality was great.
"Even though there were a lot of playoff teams out there who weren't 10-0, these boys wanted more. They're proud, but they weren't satisfied. That's what we need. We want to continue that attitude, with greater expectations."
Carruthers-Kimball was one of three Hornets to make first-team all-district on defense. The defensive back was joined by Clum and Mayville. Carter was first-team all-district on offense.
Waters was named Coach of the Year.
"My honor was obviously a reflection of the team success," he said. "The kids made me look good. To have four first-team picks and eight guys make all-district overall, that's ... a reflection of the way the program is headed. The recognition is not only great for those deserving kids, but for our school and the community. I'm proud and excited for the kids."
Foley was special mention all-district and Curtiss, Tiller and junior Doug Benniefield (WR/LB) were honorable mention.
Benniefield, Carruthers-Kimball, Clum, Curtis and Foley were first-team all-league. Carter, Giffin, Mayville and juniors Cameron Claborn (G/DT) and Aaron Tiller (TE/DE) were second-team all-league.
In the MSL-Cardinal, the Hornets finished ahead of Liberty Union (6-1), West Jefferson (5-2), Harvest Prep (4-3), Grandview (3-4), Fisher Catholic (2-5), Berne Union (1-6) and Millersport (0-7).
In addition to Benniefield, Bradley, Claborn, Carruthers-Kimball and Aaron Tiller, other key players expected to return include juniors Dante Burnette (TE), Martell Davis (DB), Ross Friel (G), Mike Hopewell (DT), Darrell Kelso (LB), Luke Langkamp (TE), Adrian Myrthil (DB) and John Neary (FB/LB).
Davis is expected to take over at quarterback.
"We're really looking forward to next season," Waters said. "With seven starters back on both side of the ball, a challenging new league and some confidence in the program, it's a great time to be a Hornet."