New Albany High School football coach Mark Mueller believed he had the better team on the field after a 33-32 loss to Trotwood-Madison in a Division II state semifinal Nov. 23 at Piqua.
Just like each of the previous 13 weeks.
"We were five points away from being undefeated and playing in a state championship game," Mueller said, referring to losses to Reynoldsburg (10-9 on Aug. 24) and Westerville Central (23-20 in overtime Aug. 31) before an 11-game winning streak put the Eagles on the doorstep of playing for their first state title.
The Eagles erased a 20-6 second-quarter deficit against the defending state champion Rams, but their comeback was overshadowed by two failed two-point conversion attempts, a handful of costly penalties and four missed kicks. Freshman Joe Rolwing missed two extra-point tries and field-goal attempts of 44 and 27 yards, the second coming with 30 seconds left and ending New Albany's final hope after Trotwood-Madison took the lead for good on Isreal Green's 37-yard touchdown run with 4:05 left.
New Albany finished 11-3.
"We just needed a couple more plays in the end," said senior quarterback/safety Darron Lee, an Ohio State recruit who threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Joe Siegenthaler in the second quarter and had an interception.
The teams combined to rush for 612 yards, with New Albany outgaining Trotwood-Madison 309-303. Green, a 5-foot-8, 202-pound senior, led the way with 221 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries, scoring from 2 and 1 yard to stake the Rams to a 14-0 lead in the first nine minutes.
Leslie Anokye rushed for 156 yards and touchdowns of 12, 13 and 49 yards on 19 carries to lead the Eagles. He scored twice in the second quarter, and in the third Alan Watson's 1-yard touchdown run and two-point conversion gave New Albany a 26-20 lead.
"We stuck to what we did well," Mueller said. "We got timely stops. In the second and third quarters, we made them punt the ball and when we ran the ball, we were able to put the ball in the end zone."
The Rams pulled ahead 27-26 when Ashton Jackson scored from 2 yards after a roughing the passer call against New Albany put Trotwood-Madison at the Eagles' 9-yard line.
Anokye's longest scoring run came on a draw play with 5:18 to play.
"Ninety-nine percent of that is the (offensive) line," said Anokye, a junior who finished the season with 1,148 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. "We just pounded it at them."
The Eagles succeeded with that approach all year, amassing 4,013 rushing yards on 538 carries while going 47-for-101 passing for 961 yards behind an offensive line led by seniors Jack Archer (LG), Matt Smith (TE), David Stambaugh (C) and Mitchell Van Straten (RT) and juniors Will Mooney (LT) and Ryan Wilson (RG). Watson, a senior, led the way with 1,388 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns on 173 carries. Lee added 737 yards and 10 touchdowns on 115 carries.
Ball control helped New Albany reverse its fortunes after the first two weeks. The Eagles committed five turnovers in those games but did so just five times in the next 11, routing DeSales 56-22 on Sept. 7 before a 7-0 run through the OCC-Capital Division. They defeated Olentangy Orange 53-33 on Sept. 14, followed by wins over Franklin Heights (66-14 on Sept. 21), Delaware (26-13 on Sept. 28), Olentangy (33-14 on Oct. 4), Big Walnut (17-6 on Oct. 11), Watkins Memorial (34-7 on Oct. 18) and Mount Vernon (38-14 on Oct. 25).
New Albany won the league title ahead of Olentangy (6-1), Big Walnut (4-3), Orange (4-3), Mount Vernon (3-4), Delaware (2-5), Watkins Memorial (2-5) and Franklin Heights (0-7).
New Albany earned the fourth seed in Division II, Region 7 and opened the playoffs with a 25-6 win over visiting Beechcroft on Nov. 2. The Eagles defeated top-seeded Dresden Tri-Valley 42-35 in a regional semifinal Nov. 9 -- avenging a 30-27, double-overtime first-round loss to the Scotties in 2010 and a 24-7 defeat in a regional semifinal in 2011 -- before beating third-seeded Marion-Franklin 32-30 in a regional final Nov. 16 at Gahanna.
New Albany is expected to return six starters on defense -- juniors Nick Clemons (LB), Tyrell Howard (CB), O.B. Oppong (S), Trey Quillin (DE) and Siegenthaler (S) and sophomore Jack Schroer (DE). Anokye, Mooney, Siegenthaler (WR) and Wilson are the expected returning starters on offense, which also loses senior Carson Tunney (WR/P).
Mueller was named OCC-Capital Coach of the Year and Lee was the league Player of the Year as well as first-team all-district. Anokye, Clemons, Smith, Stambaugh, Van Straten and Watson were first-team all-league; Howard, senior Jake Gigliotti (WR/DB), Quillin, Siegenthaler, Tunney and senior two-way lineman Louis Zuk were second-team all-league; junior Victor Chamberlain (WR/DB) and senior Keith Emerson (LB) were special mention and senior two-way lineman Austin Berg was honorable mention.
Lee, Smith, Stambaugh and Watson were first-team all-district. Clemons and Tunney were on the second team, Anokye was special mention and Chamberlain, Quillin and Van Straten were honorable mention.
"All these guys in here, they put (New Albany) on the map," Lee said. "They're going to keep up this tradition. State is not that far off. It's all within reach for us now."