With little experience and a new coach, the Columbus Crusaders club football team didn't get rolling until late last season.
The Crusaders made what they hope is a pre-emptive strike against a potential lack of camaraderie when they spent part of two-a-days together in the residence halls at Otterbein University this summer.
Considering the Crusaders are a program that draws from numerous high schools and communities and has 10 home-school students on its roster, coach Ben Barlow has placed developing team unity at the top of his list of priorities.
The Crusaders, who lost six of their first seven but finished 4-6 a year ago, open Saturday, Aug. 31, against the Indianapolis Lions club team at Troy Christian.
"We started off the first week of two-a-days at Otterbein in the dorms, which really brought us together," said senior Elijah Bowie, a Worthington resident who is a home-school student. "We've definitely got that camaraderie. This year we've only got about 42 guys on the team so we're smaller, but the group is a closer-knit group and I think we're all on the same page."
Barlow, who is in his second year as coach after previously playing for the Crusaders and later becoming an assistant, has 14 returning starters.
Bowie (5-foot-8, 155 pounds) is back in the defensive backfield, where he'll likely be joined by Westerville Central sophomore Ryan Becker (5-8, 168), Delaware sophomore Max Roberts (6-1, 200) and Walnut Ridge junior Donald Stinson (5-7, 175).
The Crusaders practice at Worthington Christian and have six players from that school on the team. Worthington Christian will play varsity football for the first time in 2014, and the Crusaders are planning to practice at The Church at Polaris beginning next year.
Worthington Christian junior Brian Lambright (6-2, 284), Licking County Christian junior Anthony Andrews (5-11, 215), Westerville North senior Cory Richards (5-10, 205), home-school senior Jake Armentrout (6-1, 198) and Columbus Alternative junior Glenn Ransom (6-1, 258) are on the defensive line. Worthington Christian senior Josh Hayes (6-0, 160), Johnstown junior Noah Armentrout (5-8, 174), Buckeye Online School for Success senior Augustine Pedrozo (5-9, 174) and home-school freshman Alex Melfe (6-2, 205) are at linebacker.
"This year is my second year and I definitely just have a better handle on all of the issues that can come my way," Barlow said. "I've always been a fiery guy, and having a year in is a big benefit. We were inexperienced in terms of game experience last year and it took awhile to gain some chemistry. This group has worked really hard and we expect it to translate into the season."
Worthington Christian senior Kyle Nowak (6-0, 220) is back at quarterback after being a part-time starter last season. The Crusaders are planning to run a spread attack with some zone reads.
Worthington Christian seniors Jordan Brown (5-11, 162) and Spencer Smith (5-10, 156) and Tree of Life junior Carl Jones (5-9, 140) are returnees at wide receiver. Sophomore Dakota Holtzclaw (6-7, 201), who is a move-in from Texas and a home-school student, as well as Roberts and Pickerington North sophomore Bryce Ward (6-1, 202) are others looking for playing time at the position.
Stinson and home-school senior Aidan Conway (6-0, 187) are at running back.
Holtzclaw and Ward also could see time at tight end, with Noah Armentrout, Jake Armentrout, Lambright, Andrews and Richards on the offensive line.
The Crusaders are playing four OHSAA teams, including St. Charles on Sept. 27 at Thomas Worthington.
Doing well against teams like the Cardinals and others in the OHSAA is among the goals for the Crusaders, who lost to St. Charles 37-13 last season but beat OHSAA-foes Dayton Meadowdale (39-20) and Dayton Ponitz Tech (33-8).
"We do have a decent number of guys back, although we were at about 60 kids last year and we're only at about 40 this year," Barlow said. "This year our No. 1 goal is that we have a couple teams on (our schedule) that I'd call 'landmark games.' We want to make sure we send a message against those teams. We're a club team and we'll emphasize those games more than others."