Strong senior class prompts Rangers' playoff hopes
The Hamilton Township High School football team hopes to build on the momentum from last year's 7-3 team to make a run at the MSL-Buckeye Division title and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Fourth-year coach Nate Hillerich has high expectations for his experienced squad, which was motivated during the offseason by a 30-25 home loss to Bloom-Carroll in last season's final game.
"This senior class is very strong," said Hillerich, whose team will open against Columbus East on Friday, Aug. 30, at home. "(Losing the finale) really made them see the importance of every game, the details and the discipline."
The Rangers return nearly all of their skill players on offense but must replace 2013 graduate Zach Thompson at quarterback. Thompson completed 90 of 147 passes for 1,529 yards, 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also rushed for 566 yards and 12 scores on 140 carries.
Seniors Logan Jones (guard), Ben Swauger (tackle), Michael Wellman (guard) and Ketdrick West (center) will lead the offensive line, with senior Alonzo Jewell and junior Josh Sweet competing for the other starting spot at tackle.
"The big thing for us is our line is senior-led," Hillerich said. "Replacing (Thompson) is going to be tough. We had a senior quarterback. He accounted for a lot of the touchdowns, running and passing, so replacing him is going to be key."
Junior Dante White is the leading candidate to take over at quarterback, and he will have key playmakers returning at receiver in senior Khenan Alexander and juniors Deric Phoutavong and Aaron Williams.
In limited time last season, White competed 11 of 21 passes for 219 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Williams rushed for a team-high 656 yards and nine touchdowns on 59 carries. He also led the team with 37 receptions for 693 yards and six touchdowns.
"Work together as a team, and if we do that, we'll be pretty successful," Williams said.
Senior tight end Micky Crum, who has committed to the University of Louisville, gives White another weapon after catching 18 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Crum also will play outside linebacker and handle the punting.
Crum expects the Rangers' big offensive line to play a key role in the team's success.
"Our offense, we're big up front," Crum said. "It's going to help us in our run game."
Another experienced player back on offense is senior Lorenzio Bridges, who will start at tailback and also will be the kicker.
"The keys to the offense this season will be moving the ball up and down the field and getting the ball in our key players' hands," said Bridges, who ran for 525 yards and six touchdowns and had 12 receptions for 146 yards and two more scores a year ago.
On defense, the line will include West (53 tackles, 6 for loss) and junior Tyaun Taylor at end and Jones at nose tackle.
Juniors Brandon Fort (inside linebacker) and Houston Palmer (outside linebacker) will join Crum (29 tackles, 4 sacks) and Wellman at linebacker.
The secondary will feature senior Dylan Napier (62 tackles, 37 solo, 1 interception) and junior Xavier Harris at safety and Williams (33 tackles, 3 interceptions) has locked up a spot as well. Also expected to see action are senior Michael Stanley and junior Josh Gregory.
The Rangers opened 4-0 last season but lost three of their final six games to finish 11th in Division II, Region 7 with 15.1 points. This year they will be in Division II, Region 5 after the OHSAA added a seventh division to the football playoffs last spring.
In the MSL-Buckeye, the Rangers, Teays Valley, Logan Elm and Circleville all finished 4-3 to trail champion Canal Winchester (7-0), which has joined the OCC-Cardinal Division and been replaced by Liberty Union.
"The biggest thing is coming together as a team and focusing on the little things," Hillerich said. "We had three losses last year, and we turned the ball over four or more times in each of those games. If we take care of the ball and with our discipline, do the little things right, we're going to have a great year."