The Licking Heights High School football team is coming off one of its best seasons.
Last year, the Hornets went 10-1 overall, won their first league championship in 20 years by going 7-0 in the MSL-Cardinal Division and made their third postseason appearance, losing to host Marion-Franklin 46-14 in the first round of the Division II, Region 7 playoffs.
Coach Darren Waters, however, knows what the Hornets accomplished a year ago doesn't impress their new foes in the Licking County League.
"We're going to a new level of competition and we're flying below the radar because everyone has doubted the schedule we played in the MSL-Cardinal," said Waters, the Division II district Coach of the Year last fall. "We don't mind entering as the underdog."
The 10-team LCL has been revived 22 years after being disbanded. Licking Heights is in the league's Big School Division with Granville, Lakewood, Licking Valley and Watkins Memorial. The Small School Division consists of Heath, Johnstown, Newark Catholic, Northridge and Utica.
The Hornets, who open Friday, Aug. 30, at home against Mifflin, return seven starters on both offense and defense, which should help them make the transition to the new league.
"We've got 24 seniors and a ton of experienced starters and great role players back," Waters said. "The keys for us will be limiting penalties, controlling the football and playing sound, fundamental defense."
Senior Adrian Myrthil (5-foot-11, 165 pounds) takes over at quarterback for 2013 graduate Taylor Curtiss to run the I-formation offense.
The backfield also includes junior Kendall Bradley (5-6, 165) at tailback, senior John Neary (5-10, 175) at fullback and senior Aaron Tiller (6-0, 235) as the H-back. Neary is a returning starter and Bradley was a part-time starter a year ago.
"Bradley did a great job at tailback as a sophomore and he did very well at the (University of) Alabama camp this summer," Waters said. "Neary did an exceptional job in the weightroom, is a strong leader and a fantastic two-way player for us."
Seniors David Lancaster (5-8, 180) and Doug Benniefield (6-2, 175) is expected to the top wide receivers, with classmates Luke Langkamp (6-1, 250) and Blake Beaver (6-2, 175) seeing time at tight end.
The offensive line returns three starters in seniors Cameron Claborn (6-2, 265) and Ross Friel (6-2, 250) at guards and Jacob Hopkins (6-0, 240) at tackle. They are joined on the line by senior Mike Hopewell (6-2, 210) at tackle and senior Craig Righter (5-9, 200) at center.
"Claborn is a great two-way lineman who is going to have a special senior season," Waters said. "I think he could get some major college looks."
The returning starters on the Hornets' 4-4 base defense include Claborn and Hopewell at tackle, Tiller at end, Neary at inside linebacker, Benniefield at outside linebacker and Myrthil at cornerback.
Tiller and Benniefield were honorable mention all-district last year.
"Tiller had an unbelievable summer," Waters said. "He attended several camps and five-star combines and was the defensive line MVP at the (National Underclassmen Combine Ultimate 100 Top Prospect Elite Camp in July in Norman, Okla.). He's a good student and leader and is personable and coachable.
"I also think Benniefield has a shot to gain attention from college scouts on defense."
The Hornets' seventh returning starter on defense, senior Ron Carruthers-Kimball (RB/DB), is expected to contribute on both sides of the ball this season after being first-team all-district on defense a year ago.
The other starters on defense are Friel at end, Beaver at outside linebacker, Lancaster at cornerback, senior Darrell Kelso (5-8, 180) at inside linebacker and junior Mershawn McMahan (5-9, 165) at safety.
Waters also expects seniors Chuckie Aitken (H-back/LB/DB) and Tanner Bauer (TE/LB), junior Robbie Moore (RB) and sophomore London Pearson (RB/DB) to play key roles. Pearson is the son of former Ohio State running back Pepe Pearson.
Junior Luke Kramer will handle the punting duties and Friel will do the place-kicking.
"We feel good about ourselves, but we know the LCL will be a step up in competition," Waters said. "It'll be interesting to see if we meet the challenge."