The Licking Heights High School football team will find out just how deep the program is this season.
The Hornets have just two returning starters in fullback Robbie Moore and defensive back Mershawn McMcahan, both seniors, as they embark on their ninth season under coach Darren Waters by visiting Mifflin on Friday, Aug. 29.
"It's rare for us to be this inexperienced, but we had two very good and deep senior classes the last two seasons," Waters said. "I think we have good talent here again, but it may take a little time for these kids to find their way and get comfortable playing on Friday nights."
The Hornets have won at least seven games in six of eight seasons under Waters, with the exceptions being when they finished 5-5 in 2006 and 2011.
Licking Heights is coming off consecutive league championships and playoff appearances, as it went 9-2 last season and shared the LCL-Big School Division title and went 10-1 in 2012 and won the MSL-Cardinal.
"Mifflin will be a good test for our young defense because they'll present a solid run game and they have some big-play ability," said Waters, whose team beat Mifflin 46-0 in the opener last year. "I've heard their numbers are down, but I know they have some great athletes."
Mifflin, which finished 5-5 last season, has depth at running back and receiver. Makiyn Tate and Montrese Frazier are the top backs and Stanley Jackson is back at receiver after being second-team all-district in Division III.
Coach Gregg Miller named D'Anthony Williams as quarterback even though Williams has never played the position in high school.
Licking Heights is hoping to shore up the line in its 4-4 base defense after graduation losses left little of the talent that held teams to 9.9 points and 160.2 yards per game last season.
"We expected we would experience some growing pains on defense after being so strong last year," Waters said. "Our two scrimmages revealed that, too. It seems we're tentative or scared to make mistakes at times. We need to just go play hard and stop being indecisive. If we're going to make mistakes, at least make them at full speed."
Inside linebackers Chris DeLeau and Chasen Neff, tackle Tyler Angle and end Nick Murphy are expected to be leaders.
The Hornets are running a stack-I offense, which gives them the ability to morph into the spread.
"We haven't yet decided whether Curtis Richardson or Gabe Caldwell will start at quarterback and we may use both of them," Waters said. "But our backs have looked very sharp and we think we're ahead of the game on offense in general."
Kendall Bradley, McMcahan and Moore appear to be the top backs, with DeLeau, London Pearson and Nate Thacker supplying depth.
Jake Langkamp and Zach Sims should anchor the line.
Mifflin has six players who are projected starters on both sides of the ball. The defense is expected to be led by linebacker Melik Scott, a third-year starter who was second-team all-district last season.
Girls soccer team under new direction
The girls soccer team is looking for a much stronger second varsity season.
The Hornets finished 2-15 overall and 1-5 in the LCL last season but lost just one player to graduation in Alex Stojkovic, a forward.
Seven starters have returned for first-year coach Mitch Tom, who replaced Michelle Lisy.
"I think we're fundamentally sound, we communicate well and we have a balanced attack," Tom said. "We want to stay balanced defensively even with our aggressive style of attack on offense. This team struggled in its first year playing a j.v. schedule and struggled last year, too. It's tough when you start a program with no middle school or youth program."
Tom spent six seasons as a coach at Ohio State-Newark, two with the women's team and four with the men's team. An intervention specialist at Licking Heights Central Middle School, he did not coach anywhere the last two seasons.
"I'm really impressed with our freshman class and four freshmen will be starting," said Tom, whose team opened by beating Hamilton Township 6-2 on Aug. 16 and began league play Aug. 21 with a 7-0 loss to Granville. "We have a lot of club players, which is nice, but I am a bit concerned with how our freshmen will handle the physical style of older opponents on the varsity level. It's a big step up to varsity."
The returning starters are seniors Rachel Bernthold (goalkeeper), Jessica Brungs (sweeper), Maddie Dixon (striker) and Amber Dunkle (stopper), juniors Jenna Tishenkel (center midfielder) and Ellie Pastor (center midfielder) and sophomore Makaylynn Wilcox-Gates (center back).
Tishenkel was first-team all-LCL and third-team all-district. Dixon was second-team all-league and Wilcox-Gates was honorable mention.
"Jenna Tishenkel ... has a firm understanding of the game," Tom said. "In addition, she is the key to holding down the midfield. Ellie Pastor is another player who has tremendous footwork and good vision.
"Maddie Dixon has a great burst of speed and a phenomenal shot. Amber Dunkle, Jessica Brungs and Rachel Bernthold are all critical pieces of our defense."
Freshman starters are Lily Callander (outside midfielder), Zoe Estep (striker), Trinity Isom (center back) and Mckenzie Mahl (outside midfielder).
Also on the roster are senior Kayla Adams (center midfielder), junior Jordan Broomfield (midfielder) and freshmen Aubrey Barrington (defender), Regan Hamilton (stopper), Paige Isabel (defender), Bailea Neumeyer (midfielder), Kayla Rautine (defender) and Kibret Zerayesus (outside midfielder).
Boys soccer team seeks improvement
The boys soccer team lost three players to graduation following a season in which it went 3-14 overall and 0-7 in the LCL.
Six seniors are starting in Ali Ayub (midfielder), Tajon Herring (forward), Caleb Hildrebrand (defender), Gauthier Murat (forward), Cameron Sadilek (defender) and Marcos Yilma (defender).
"We have a lot of returnees who will bring a lot of experience to the team this year," third-year coach Zach Grubb said. "(Last season) was a rebuilding year and it was a big learning curve for all of us."
The starting lineup also includes juniors Cameron Christian (midfielder), Zach Coverdale (defender), Nate Hasson (goalie), Tajon Herrin (forward) and Ben Hunkler (midfielder). Freshman Rayce Rizenthaler (midfielder) also is vying to start.
"Cameron Christian is going to be a key component in our offense and is going to be a key role player in the midfield to help set up scoring opportunities," Grubb said. "Zach Coverdale is the leader of the defense and is important in running and setting up our defense."
Rounding out the roster are seniors Tanaka Mazivanhanga (forward), Ali Shariff (defender) and Kirabel Teklemariam (goalie), juniors Joel Bagley (defender), Zane Estep (forward), Paul Flanagan (midfielder), Alan Konneh (midfielder) and Gareth Mareya (defender), sophomores Lincoln Chifamba (defender), Carrick Duffey (forward) and Patrick Kenney (defender) and freshman Nathaniel Amoah.
Licking Heights opened Aug. 19 by losing to Pickerington North 8-1. The Hornets opened league play Aug. 21 with a 7-2 loss to Granville.
Aug. 19 -- vs. Pickerington North
*Aug. 21 -- at Granville
*Aug. 28 -- at Watkins Memorial
Aug. 30 -- at Newark
Sept. 2 -- at Amanda-Clearcreek
*Sept. 4 -- vs. Northridge
Sept. 6 -- at Reynoldsburg
*Sept. 11 -- vs. Johnstown
Sept. 13 -- vs. Central Crossing
*Sept. 18 -- vs. Lakewood
*Sept. 25 -- at Heath
Sept. 27 -- vs. Lancaster
*Oct. 2 -- vs. Licking Valley
Oct. 4 -- at Groveport
Oct. 9 -- vs. New Concord John Glenn
Aug. 16 -- vs. Hamilton Township
*Aug. 21 -- vs. Granville
*Aug. 28 -- vs. Watkins Memorial
Aug. 30 -- vs. Columbus Academy
*Sept. 2 -- vs. Licking Valley
Sept. 6 -- vs. Delaware
*Sept. 11 -- at Johnstown
Sept. 15 -- at Vincent Warren
*Sept. 18 -- at Lakewood
Sept. 20 -- at Big Walnut
Sept. 23 -- at Centennial
*Sept. 25 -- vs. Heath
Sept. 30 -- at Wellington
Oct. 2 -- at Licking Valley
Oct. 4 -- vs. Reynoldsburg
Oct. 7 -- at Bloom-Carroll