It would have been easy for the Olentangy Orange High School football team to stop giving maximum effort after six games this season.
The Pioneers had won only two of their first six games and had lost three in a row after falling to Mount Vernon 21-14 in overtime on Sept. 28. However, coach Brian Cross challenged his players to step up their play and they responded by rallying to win their final four games to post their fourth consecutive winning season.
Orange finished 6-4 overall and went 4-3 in the OCC-Capital Division to tie Big Walnut for third, behind New Albany (7-0) and Olentangy (6-1) and ahead of Mount Vernon (3-4), Delaware (2-5), Watkins Memorial (2-5) and Franklin Heights (0-7).
“When we came out of the gate, we were a pretty inexperienced team with only two starters back on defense and we had a lot of pieces of the puzzle to figure out on offense,” said Cross, who has guided the Pioneers to a 32-21 record in five seasons. “We found ourselves as a team in the middle of the season. Our kids started to understand how to play the game of football and they wanted to do whatever they could to get better.”
Orange began its turnaround with a 24-10 win over Delaware on Oct. 5. The Pioneers then beat Franklin Heights (49-13 on Oct. 12) and Big Walnut (10-0 on Oct. 19) before concluding the season with a 13-10 win over Watkins Memorial on Oct. 26.
“I think we picked up the intensity level a little in the final four games,” junior linebacker Jake Lewis said. “We were tired of losing and knew we had to put some good games together and worked as a team.”
The win over Big Walnut was Orange’s first in five games against the Golden Eagles.
“Our seniors fought and battled through different injuries and they got our first win over Big Walnut,” Cross said. “They not only beat Big Walnut, but shut them out at their place. They took a lot of pride in that.”
Orange loses 28 seniors, including the majority of its starters.
Senior running back Larry Rode rushed for 1,208 yards on 187 carries and had 13 touchdowns and was named special mention all-district in Division I and first-team all-league. Senior fullback Mike Forbes had 995 yards rushing on 167 carries and eight touchdowns and was honorable mention all-district and first-team all-league.
Senior quarterback Kofi Hill, who became a starter during his sophomore season, missed the final five games with an ankle injury. His backup, senior Jake Stier, helped guide the Pioneers to four wins in five starts.
“He did a good job of managing the offense,” Cross said of Stier, who also handled the punting duties, averaging 35 yards a punt. “We didn’t ask him to pass a lot and Jake did well in the play-action game. We weren’t turning the ball over and that paid dividends.”
Senior Triston Richardson (WR/DB) caught 13 passes for 226 yards and had three interceptions on defense and was honorable mention all-district and first-team all-league. Senior place-kicker Mitch Hopkins also was named first-team all-league after making five field goals, including a 24-yarder late in the win over Watkins Memorial, and 25 extra points.
Senior Spencer Wilson (OL) was second-team all-district and first-team all-league. Seniors Ben Heilman (OL) and Nick Skidmore (OL) were second-team all-league and senior Cole Snowden (OL/DL) was special mention all-league.
Lewis (second-team all-league) and junior wingback and linebacker Justin Gels (honorable mention all-league) lead a small group of experienced players expected to return. Others include juniors Cole Cunningham (DL) and Lenn’s Kamba (DL) and sophomore C.J. Stablein (DB).
“We have about nine coaches coming back next season, and that’s about it,” Cross said with a laugh. “We lose our entire offensive line, except for Jake Lewis at tight end, and Justin Gels should be back at wingback. “Defensively, we have Cole Cunningham and Lenn’s Kamba on the line, Gels and Lewis at linebacker and C.J. Stablein at safety. The whole senior class next year will probably only be 10 to 12 kids.”
Lewis said the returnees will be ready for the challenge that awaits them.
“This year we really had to pull together as a team, and that’s what we need to do in the offseason,” he said. “We had to keep improving throughout the season and not give up. Now we have to work hard in the offseason to get better.”