The Hilliard Darby High School football team is coming off one of the best seasons in program history.
Now in their 17th season, the Panthers captured their first outright league championship, made their third playoff appearance, went undefeated in the regular season for the first time and tied their record for wins in a season last fall, as they finished 11-1 overall and 7-0 in the OCC-Cardinal Division.
"The leadership that last year's senior class provided us with is a blueprint for this group of kids to follow because we couldn't have done so well without everyone buying into the team concept the way they did," said coach John Santagata, whose team opens Friday, Aug. 30 at home against Boardman. "Our senior class is a close-knit group of good friends who are working hard and committing to our team's success. But the key to us having a good season is our leadership has to continually improve so that everyone continues to do their best for our team."
Darby lost seven starters on its spread-option offense to graduation, including three who are playing at the college level in quarterback Chase Longwell (Capital), wide receiver Caleb Day (Illinois) and lineman Zack Williams (Ohio Dominican).
Last season, Day had 32 receptions for 490 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for 463 yards and nine scores on 60 carries and was OCC-Cardinal co-Player of the Year.
Longwell was 53-for-88 passing for 888 yards with eight touchdowns and rushed for 964 yards and 15 touchdowns on 154 carries and was special mention all-district and first-team all-league, and Williams was second-team all-district and first-team all-league.
Darby returns five players who started multiple games on offense a year ago in senior linemen David Still, Josh Humbert and Tony Hajjar and senior slotbacks Devon Rogers and Jacob Stacy.
Humbert, who has received a scholarship offer from the University of Akron, was second-team all-league a year ago and Hajjar and Still both were special mention all-league.
Stacy rushed for 164 yards and two touchdowns and had four receptions for 86 yards last year and was honorable mention all-league.
Senior Nate Green has replaced Longwell at quarterback and senior Hunter McSweeney is expected to play a big role at slotback.
"Having three experienced players on our line return definitely will help us, but we've had a lot of our new guys step up in the offseason and they're looking good right now, too," Humbert said.
Darby's 4-3 defense lost eight starters to graduation, including linebacker Cameron Kohl, who had 148 tackles, five sacks and was first-team all-district and all-league a year ago and is playing at Ohio Dominican.
The three returning starters on defense are senior lineman Brian Casey and senior linebackers Nate Green and Trevor Parker. Parker had 76 tackles and two sacks last year and was second-team all-league.
Humbert is expected to see significant time on the defensive line and McSweeney and junior Trevor Cox are starting at cornerback.
Green is expected to handle the punting duties again after averaging 36.7 yards per punt last year and being named special mention all-district and second-team all-league. Vying to replace 2013 graduate Kyle Kaplan as placekicker are Stacy and junior Ryan Kasprzak.
"We're looking for replacements for a lot of starters on both sides of the ball and we've got a lot of close competitions going on for those positions," Santagata said.
Darby is looking to defend its OCC-Cardinal championship and return to the playoffs.
The Panthers were the top seed in Region 3 last season and defeated eighth-seeded Westerville South 31-10 in the first round before losing to fourth-seeded Pickerington North 24-14 in a regional semifinal.
"We had a real good season last year, so there's more pressure on us to have another good year," Humbert said. "Our goal is to improve on what we did last year, and we're working hard to try to get there."