In the aftermath of a 24-0 loss to Mansfield Senior in the first round of the Division II, Region 5 playoffs Nov. 8, Licking Heights High School football coach Darren Waters has been asked about his team's postseason struggles.
The Hornets, who finished 9-2 overall, lost to Marion-Franklin 46-14 in a Division II, Region 7 first-round game last year and own a 1-4 playoff record.
"People want to know why we lost in the first round these last two years," said Waters, who has a 64-30 record in nine seasons leading the program and has guided the Hornets to three of their four playoff appearances. "I don't get upset with that because it just means the community has high expectations like we do.
"As a matter of fact, I kind of chuckled. When I got here in 2005, we went 3-7. In 2006, we went 5-5 and everyone was so excited. In 2007, we went 10-2 and won a playoff game and that changed the culture here. The expectations have become to make the playoffs. Now everyone wants more. I think that's great. That's what we want, too. There's nothing like a playoff atmosphere and environment, but we have to build on that now and start winning playoff games."
The game between Licking Heights, which was seeded fifth in Region 5, and fourth-seeded Mansfield Senior remained scoreless until late in the first half, when the host Tygers scored 10 points in the final seven seconds.
On fourth-and-6 at the Hornets' 37-yard line, Tygers quarterback Jalen Reese connected with wide receiver Chek Washington for 35 yards on a slant pattern. Reese then threw a 2-yard fade pass to 6-foot-6 receiver Robert Jones for a touchdown with seven seconds left.
"We made a mistake on the fourth-down play and it cost us," Waters said. "On the touchdown pass, there was little we could do because of the (height) differential between (Jones) and our defensive back. They just threw jump balls to him and that's how they scored all of their touchdowns."
On the ensuing kickoff, Mansfield Senior opted for a pooch kick and recovered the ball at the Hornets' 26. Hutch Blackstone then kicked a 43-yard field goal as time expired to give the Tygers a 10-0 lead at halftime.
"We didn't panic, but they definitely had all the momentum (heading into the second half)," Waters said. "But I still thought our defense played great because Mansfield has some terrific athletes and they had a good game plan. We thought we'd be able to make some big plays offensively with play-action passes, but we never were able to make it happen."
Reese and Jones connected on a 16-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter and on a 15-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to close the scoring for Mansfield Senior, which entered the game averaging 40.4 points.
The Tygers, who improved to 11-0 and faced top-seeded New Albany in a regional semifinal Nov. 15, limited Licking Heights to 145 yards rushing. The Hornets, who lose 24 seniors, entered the contest averaging 305 yards on the ground.
"This was the first time we made the playoffs in consecutive seasons and this senior class also won back-to-back league championships, so they left their mark on the program," Waters said.
Among the seniors on offense are quarterback Martell Davis, running back Ron Carruthers-Kimball, fullback John Neary, wide receivers Douglas Benniefield and Adrian Myrthil, tight ends Luke Langkamp and Tanner Bauer and linemen Cameron Claborn, Ross Friel, Mike Hopewell, Jacob Hopkins, Craig Righter and A.J. Velasquez.
Righter started at center, Claborn and Friel were the starting guards and Hopewell, Hopkins and Velasquez each saw time at the tackle positions.
Neary, who was limited to playing defense against Mansfield Senior because of an ankle injury, had 421 yards rushing and four touchdowns on 79 rushes in eight games. Carruthers-Kimball rushed for 403 yards and nine touchdowns on 73 runs in six games and Davis rushed for 332 yards on 65 carries and was 19-for-54 passing for 291 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions in eight games.
Benniefield had 10 receptions for 131 yards and averaged 35.3 yards on 16 kickoff returns and Langkamp had four catches for 133 yards and a touchdown.
The Hornets' defense, which allowed 1,602 total yards, including 708 rushing, in the regular season, loses eight key players in Benniefield (LB), Claborn (DT), Friel (DE), Hopewell (DT) and Neary (LB) and seniors D.D. Kelso (LB), David Lancaster (DB) and Aaron Tiller (DE).
Tiller (6-1, 240 pounds) had 57.5 tackles, a team-high 16.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries in the regular season and was named league Lineman of the Year and first-team all-district.
The Hornets went 3-1 in the LCL-Big School Division to share the league title with Granville and Licking Valley, with Watkins Memorial (1-3) and Lakewood (0-4) rounding out the standings.
Benniefield (49 tackles) and Hopkins were named first-team all-league and all-district, Hopewell was first-team all-district and second-team all-league and Kelso (team-high 101 tackles, 3 interceptions) was first-team all-league and honorable mention all district.
Hopewell was second-team all-league and all-district, Friel was second-team all-league and special mention all-district, Claborn was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district and Neary was second-team all-league.
"We are losing a big and talented senior class, but they were great leaders who took the young kids under their wings and showed them the ropes," Waters said. "I think our (2014 returnees) saw the work ethic and leadership that is needed to be successful.
"I know that these following classes will want to build on what we've done lately. They want their shot, their opportunity to leave their mark and add to the tradition and foundation we're building. We have some key personnel returning and our j.v. team had a good season."
The Hornets expect to return their top two rushers in juniors Robbie Moore (848 yards, 13 TDs, 99 carries) and Kendall Bradley (822 yards, 8 TDs, 93 carries). Moore was honorable mention all-league and special mention all-district.
Among the other expected returnees are juniors Tyler Angle (OL), Chris DeLeau (FB/LB), Mershawn McMahan (DB) and Curtis Richardson (QB) and sophomores Adrien Hammonds (FB) and Jake Langkamp (OL). Richardson started at quarterback early in the season before Davis returned from suspension.