The Pickerington High School Central football team refused to let a third consecutive blowout loss to its sister school linger.
A season after falling to Pickerington North 37-0 in the regular season and 24-0 in the first round of the playoffs, the Tigers gave up seven first-half touchdowns and lost to the Panthers 49-14 on Oct. 4 to fall to 3-2.
Central turned the corner a week later, however, with a 32-29 win at Grove City.
The Tigers won their final five of the regular season and earned an eighth consecutive playoff berth. They also won at least a share of a league championship for the eighth year in a row.
"The crossroads for us was after the loss to North," coach Jay Sharrett said. "We had to go to Grove City and pulled out a big win. Our season could have gone one way or the other after (the North loss)."
The Tigers were seeded 14th for the Division I, Region 2 playoffs and made it to the second round, where they lost at sixth-seeded Cincinnati Colerain 38-20 on Nov. 16 to finish 8-3 overall.
Central went 6-1 in the OCC-Ohio Division to tie North for the title ahead of Grove City (5-2), Gahanna, Lancaster and Reynoldsburg (3-4) and Newark and Groveport (1-6).
In the first round of the playoffs Nov. 9, Central won 38-28 to spoil the home playoff debut of third-seeded West Chester Lakota West.
Central and Colerain were tied at 10 at halftime, but the Cardinals sprinted to a 31-13 lead early in the fourth quarter on the way to improving to 12-0.
Central loses 24 seniors, including first-team all-district selections Isaiah Richmond at linebacker, Rudy Stefanitsis at punter and Brennan Dudziak on the offensive line.
Richmond (RB/LB), Stefanitsis (WR/DB/P) and Dudziak (OL/LB) were joined on the all-league first team by seniors Vinnie Allen (WR/DB), Josh Clouse (OL/DL), Cris Reyes (TE/LB) and Colby Simkins (QB). Senior Vince Lewis (OL/DL) was second-team all-league, seniors Tyler Boyd (OL/DL) and Tawain Gordon (RB/DB) were special mention and senior Jordan Pieczynski (RB/DB) was honorable mention.
"I thought we had a phenomenal season," Richmond said. "We kept our streak going in the league and made it to the second round of the playoffs. It's a pretty big deal when you have to play Cincinnati schools, and we beat one of them (in Lakota West). As a team, I was pretty happy with it."
Richmond scored a team-best 24 touchdowns and led the rushing attack with 825 yards on 94 carries. Gordon had 111 rushes for 598 yards with eight touchdowns and senior Isaiah Thompson added 438 yards rushing.
Simkins completed 80 of 176 passes for 1,397 yards with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while junior Eric Johnson was the leading receiver with 25 catches.
Among the candidates to take over at quarterback are juniors Matt Martello, Jon Pratt, Christian Whitner and R.J. Williams and sophomore Seth Currens. Martello didn't play this fall after transferring from Pickerington North, while Pratt, Williams and Currens combined to attempt 12 passes.
Whitner was expected to be a key player in the defensive backfield and a contributor at quarterback but was lost for the season with an injury suffered during a 38-33 loss to Centerville in the opener Aug. 30.
On defense, the Tigers are eligible to return juniors Clay Burk (LB), Clayton Glasco (LB), Brad Morris (DB), Stan Parker (DL) and Johnson (DB) and sophomores Ahmed Francis II (DL/LB) and Currens (DB).
Glasco, Johnson and junior DaVon Hamilton, who started on the offensive line, were second-team all-league. Sophomore kicker Devon McMillin made eight field goals, including a pair of 44-yarders against Colerain, and was second-team all-league and special mention all-district.
Others eligible to return include junior Jake Kingera (TE/LB) and sophomore Drew Hawley (LB).
"We realized if we didn't pull together after the loss to North that we wouldn't have a shot to make the playoffs," said Burk, who started eight games at linebacker.
"We didn't want to have it end on a sour note for (the seniors). We've got to pull together this offseason."