Game 15 is Panthers' priority
The Licking Valley High School football team isn't looking past any of its opponents, but it does have an eye on week 15 of the season.
The Division IV state final will be played that week at Fawcett Stadium in Canton or Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon. As a reminder of the Panthers' ultimate goal, each player has been wearing a No. 15 jersey every day in practice.
"It is going to be a very tough thing to get to," quarterback Grant Garber said. "We have only two teams in the history of the school to make the state championship game. It's always the goal, but this year it is emphasized more.
"We want to take it one game at a time, but we want to always have that 15th game in mind."
Licking Valley was state runner-up in 2001 in Division IV and 2007 in Division III.
The Panthers have missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons -- marking the first time they have failed to make the postseason in back-to-back seasons under longtime coach Randy Baughman since missing the postseason three consecutive years from 1997-99 -- after qualifying for the postseason in five of the previous six years.
Last season, Licking Valley went 7-3 overall and finished 10th in the Division III, Region 11 computer rankings, two spots from the final playoff berth.
"We always start out with high expectations. That is part of the tradition and we are always upset when we don't make the playoffs," said Baughman, whose team has a 26-13 postseason record in 13 playoff appearances, all since 1988.
"We shared the (MSL-Ohio Division) title last year, but we like to be selfish and win it outright."
Garber, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior who completed 66 of 136 passes for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns last fall, will lead an offense expected to utilize multiple formations, including a two-back set and, at times, a spread formation.
Baughman said his team's depth at wide receiver is among its strengths. The receiving corps includes seniors Ty Griffith (6-2, 175), Mason Baker (6-2, 180), Scott Morris and Tanner Nethers and juniors Damon Hupp (6-0, 160), Tyler Nethers.
Griffith was the Panthers' leading receiver last year, making second-team all-district.
Expected to lead the running game is 6-1, 215-pound senior Hunter Hartshorn, who moves from fullback to tailback to replace 2013 graduate Drew McArtor, a second-team all-state and first-team all-district selection a year ago.
Senior tackle Seth Walpole (6-2, 265) and his brother, junior guard Hayden Walpole (6-0, 210), will anchor the offensive line.
On the other side of the ball, senior defensive end Blake Owens (6-2, 210) is in his third season as a starter. Other key players in the Panthers' 4-3 base defense include senior linebacker Craig Prince (6-1, 215), junior tackle Bo Redman and Griffith and Hupp in the secondary.
Prince was the Panthers' leading tackler last season.
Licking Valley, which opens Friday, Aug. 30, at Dresden Tri-Valley, is looking to start the season stronger than it did a year ago when it lost its first two contests.
"It has been a focus for us so that we are better prepared so that we do get off to a better start," Baughman said. "We didn't lose to a couple of slouches, but we are doing everything this year to get off to a better start."
Licking Valley went 6-1 in the MSL-Ohio Division last year to share the league title with Granville (6-1) and Newark Catholic (6-1). All three teams are part of the revived Licking County League this season.
The Panthers are in the LCL's Big School Division with Granville, Lakewood, Licking Heights and Watkins Memorial.
Baughman, 60, is in his 32nd season at Licking Valley and owns a 263-85-1 record. He said it is still easy for him to get excited about the game.
"They are fun kids to be around and they have worked as hard as any group we've had," he said. "A lot of times when you are working hard you are miserable, but this group just knows how to embrace it, that they are working hard for a purpose.
"We're looking for perfection. That is our mindset, to run the table. That is how we are going to approach it and we'll see what happens."