Entering its final scrimmage Aug. 21 against Bexley, the Watkins Memorial High School football team appeared to be making improvements, according to seventh-year coach Jeff Severino.
The Warriors, who open Friday, Aug. 29, at Briggs, finished 5-5 overall last season.
"We are where we're supposed to be at this point of the season, and I'm expecting us to show great improvement over the first few weeks of the season," Severino said. "We're trying to prepare for the new summer weather that we didn't have most of the summer because that will probably play a role in the first month of the season."
The Warriors, who defeated Briggs 62-0 in their opener last year, have returned just one starter on offense and two on defense.
The lone returning starter on offense is senior Mike Ford, who was a running back last year in the Warriors' spread-option attack, rushing for a team-high 545 yards and six touchdowns on 107 carries. He has shifted to quarterback this year, replacing 2014 graduate Ben Shroyer, who was 56-for-174 passing for 1,041 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year and ran for 217 yards and five touchdowns on 81 carries.
Zach Jenkins, who was the starting center last season, also has returned, but the junior has moved to defensive tackle.
According to Severino, the Warriors will utilize a rotation of four running backs in Kaleb Goad, Solomon Broomfield, Robert Speaks and Evan Caniff.
"Our strength is Ford at quarterback, and we have excellent (running) backs and slotbacks and the offensive linemen are just catching on," Severino said.
The two returning starters in the Warriors' 4-2-5 base defense are senior tackle Nathan Miller and senior cornerback Taven Jenkins.
Also expected to be key contributors are strong safety Cameron Smith, ends Alex Miles and Rex Miles and linebackers Corey Hare and Terrial Hitchings.
Briggs, which is in the City League-South Division, underwent a coaching change during the offseason, as Larry Willoughby replaced former Ohio State running back Butler By'not'e. The Bruins finished 1-9 last year.
Willoughby is trying to improve a defense that allowed an average of 52.2 points per game last season.
"We're giving up a little bit in size to get the speed on the field," Willoughby said. "We spend a lot of time tackling and pursuing. You go back and look at those big scores (last season) and it's the result of big plays. Fundamentals can take care of those cut-back runs and big plays."
Briggs' 3-4 defense will be led by linebackers Mason Cullen and Michael Bradley and linemen Tavin Jordan and Collins Dede.
Leading the Bruins' wing-T offense are quarterback Tyson Miles and running back Maleik Gore. Both are returning starters.
Willoughby coached Heath from 1994-2000, posting a 41-29 record and winning two MSL-Cardinal Division titles.
"Larry takes over a typical City team, that although small in numbers, has some very good athletes and some decent size," Severino said. "His teams like to power the ball at you, but they have breakaway speed and we'll have to match up with their athletes."
Boys soccer team looking to repeat
The boys soccer team is looking to repeat as LCL champion, and the return of nine players bolsters its chances of achieving that goal.
The Warriors finished 8-7-2 overall last season, losing to Pickerington North 2-0 in the second round of the Division I district tournament after having a first-round bye. They went 6-0-1 in the LCL, with Granville placing second at 6-1.
Watkins Memorial opened Aug. 19 with a 1-0 loss to Big Walnut, allowing the lone goal in the final five minutes, and began league play Aug. 21 with an 8-0 win at Heath.
"We have set goals of reaching double-digit wins and repeating as league champions," third-year coach Scott Spangler said. "We also would like to improve our record in non-league games and fare better in the (postseason tournament).
"We struggled with (our non-league schedule last year), and it's tough to go from playing some Division II and III schools (in the LCL) to playing bigger, more established programs in the district tournament."
Watkins Memorial, which went 2-7-1 against non-league opponents a year ago, has returned eight players who saw time as a starter last season in seniors Hunter Bock (goalkeeper), Liam Leonard (midfielder) and Alec Mathew (goalie), juniors Chance Abbitt (forward), Nick Spangler (def-ender/midfielder) and Michael Theibert (midfielder/forward) and sophomores Sam Blum (midfielder) and Patrick Holmes (defender).
"Both senior goalkeepers are vying for the starting position and both are expecting to play at the collegiate level," coach Spangler said. "Mathew is an athletic keeper who makes big saves in big moments. He's a vocal leader who will keep the back line organized. Bock is tough to beat from close range. He's got great hands and instincts and will definitely keep us in a few games."
Theibert and Spangler were named second-team all-LCL and Abbitt was honorable mention all-league last year.
"Abbitt is a fast striker who plays with relentless effort and determination and has a nose for the goal," coach Spangler said. "Theibert is a dynamic playmaker on the outside and he will take defenders on, send in dangerous crosses and score with a big left foot. Spangler is a defender who gets forward to play dangerous crosses and distributes well out of the back to start the attack."
Another returnee, senior midfielder Derek Clear, is expected to see significant playing time, while senior Mason Hughes (midfielder), sophomores Patrick Holmes (defender), Cory Steer (defender) and Drew Taylor (forward) and freshman Zane Kaetzel (midfielder) are vying for starting jobs.
Clear, Leonard and Mathew are team captains.
Also looking to contribute are seniors Alec Miller (defender/midfielder) and Drew Untch (defender) and juniors Rodney Mavunga (midfielder/forward) and Eric McKean (midfielder).
"I think this team has speed up front and on the outside, a possession-minded midfield and strong defensive organization," coach Spangler said. "We are somewhat young, but this is the first time in a while that we've been this tight-knit this early in the year. We're working together to reach our goals."
Phillips takes over girls soccer team
The girls soccer team hopes to be a little greedier this season after sharing the LCL title with Granville last year.
Watkins Memorial finished 10-4-3 overall and went 5-0-1 in the league to tie Granville for first, with Johnstown (4-2) placing third.
The Warriors underwent a coaching change during the offseason, with Kaylee Phillips replacing Alex Stout.
Phillips, a 2007 Watkins Memorial graduate who served as an assistant coach last season, was a record-setting striker for the Warriors. She was the first boys or girls player in Licking County to reach 100 career goals. She was the fourth girls player and fifth player overall in the Central District to surpass that milestone.
"Although we have a number of girls with experience, we are young overall," said Phillips, who finished with 103 career goals. "We have a large and dedicated sophomore class that has been playing together since they were in elementary school. It is starting to show on the field and we can't wait to see what this year brings."
The Warriors have returned 12 letterwinners in seniors Maddie Berry (defender), Natalie Buscemi (forward), Olivia Kuhn (midfielder) and Samantha Newman (midfielder), juniors Amberly Knox (midfielder/forward), Rachel Lawwell (defender), Kristin Spurbeck (midfielder) and Amber White (forward) and sophomores Theresa LaGreca (defender), Sammy Lyon (forward), Caitlyn Smith (midfielder) and McKenzie Weller (defender).
"Amberly Knox and Sam Newman together in the midfield will be key for us," Phillips said. "We've played our best soccer when they work as a unit stringing passes together. Both bring a leadership element on the field and younger girls look up to them.
"Amber White is coming off a very successful club season and we will need her to score goals. Her ability to take girls 1-on-1 is the key to our attack."
The back line will be protecting a new goalie in junior McKenzie Pemberton, who has replaced 2014 graduate Madi Moore, a first-team all-league honoree a year ago who is now playing at the University of Findlay.
"Maddie Berry, Theresa LaGreca, and McKenzie Weller in the back are going to be crucial to our success," Phillips said. "They worked all summer at being a solid unit and they keep improving each practice and playing opportunity.
"We will miss Moore in goal, but McKenzie Pemberton has worked and is continuing to work very hard at filling those shoes."
The Warriors opened Aug. 19 against Big Walnut and trailed 2-0 at halftime when the game was suspended because of bad weather. According to Phillips, the teams will try to complete the game at a later date.
Watkins Memorial began LCL play Aug. 21 with a 13-1 win over Heath.
Also on the team are seniors Nicole Dehart (goalie), Nicole Holtz (midfielder/defender), Jessica Lewis (forward), Tiyanna Ross (midfielder/forward), Kara Scanlon (midfielder/forward) and Maddie Williams (forward), juniors Kaiti Hayman (defender) and Michelle Pemberton (forward) and sophomores Dana Berry (defender/midfielder), Hastings Marek (defender/midfielder), Rylan Perry (forward), Baylee Small (forward), Lyndsay Walsh (defender) and Morgan Walsh (defender).
Aug. 19 -- vs. Big Walnut
*Aug. 21 -- at Heath
Aug. 23 -- at New Albany
*Aug. 28 -- vs. Licking Heights
Aug. 30 -- vs. Reynoldsburg
*Sept. 4 -- at Lakewood
*Sept. 11 -- vs. Licking Valley
*Sept. 16 -- at Granville
Sept. 18 -- at Pickerington North
*Sept. 23 -- vs. Johnstown
Sept. 27 -- at Zanesville
*Sept. 30 -- vs. Northridge
Oct. 2 -- vs. Grove City
Oct. 4 -- at Newark
Oct. 9 -- at Coshocton
Aug. 19 -- at Big Walnut
*Aug. 21 -- vs. Heath
Aug. 23 -- vs. New Albany
Aug. 26 -- vs. Logan
*Aug. 28 -- at Licking Heights
Sept. 2 -- at Bexley
*Sept. 4 -- vs. Lakewood
*Sept. 11 -- at Licking Valley
Sept. 13 -- vs. Hilliard Darby
*Sept. 16 -- vs. Granville
Sept. 18 -- at Pickerington North
Sept. 22 -- vs. Thomas Worthington
*Sept. 27 -- at Johnstown
Oct. 2 -- at Worthington Kilbourne
Oct. 7 -- at Worthington Christian
Oct. 9 -- vs. Zanesville