Panthers hope to build on playoff run
Panthers linebacker Dylan Weigel (right) enters his senior season as the program leader in career tackles. Buy This Photo
In addition to the excitement it created and the accomplishments it celebrated after reaching a Division I state semifinal a year ago, the Pickerington High School North football team has benefited in a way it couldn't have anticipated.
Over the past few months, the extra exposure from that postseason run has helped the program turn into a go-to spot for players seeking a fresh start.
A year after a senior class featuring Division I recruits Jake Butt (Michigan) and Godwin Igwebuike (Northwestern) led the way, North has added seven transfers, including five who could be key players.
The Panthers' numbers also have improved, including a freshman class that includes about 40 players, according to coach Tom Phillips.
North, which opens Friday, Aug. 30, at home against St. Charles, went 12-2 overall and earned a share of its second league championship by tying Pickerington Central at 6-1 in the OCC-Ohio Division.
"Those extra four weeks helped us," said Phillips, who is 43-22 in six seasons at North. "(The new players) watched us and liked what they saw. We did play a lot of kids last year. A lot of our kids are returning. That's the challenge and the excitement."
There are a slew of players looking to fill the shoes at running back for Igwebuike, who had 229 carries for 1,981 yards and 25 touchdowns and was the district's Offensive Player of the Year.
One candidate is senior Ron Brown, a move-in from Pittsburgh who will be attending his third school in as many seasons. The 5-foot-8, 189-pounder has Division I scholarship offers from Temple and several FCS programs and rushed for more than 1,000 yards a year ago for Imani Christian Academy.
Senior Jabree Lather (5-7, 175) and junior Brett Howell (5-10, 175) are two other newcomers at running back.
Lather was Fremont Ross' No. 1 running back the last two seasons. During North's 41-13 win over the Little Giants a year ago, he rushed for 182 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries. Howell was a key running back for Pittsburgh Northgate.
In addition, senior John Harris (5-9, 160), who is a two-time state qualifier in the high jump, should see action in the backfield.
Taking over at quarterback is senior Zeph Miller (6-0, 180), who completed 25 of 41 passes for 476 yards with five touchdowns and rushed 44 times for 271 yards.
Butt was North's leading receiver a year ago, finishing with 68 catches for 941 yards and 12 touchdowns as the team's H-Back and tight end. This season's top receivers should include seniors Jordan Chambers (5-11, 170), Justin Childers (6-2, 195), Tanner Gillum (6-1, 185), Chris McDowell (6-3, 170) and Tony Welch (6-2, 180). Junior Quincy Storey (6-2, 170), who sat out last season after transferring from Marion-Franklin, is another in the mix.
Senior Cameron Wolfe (6-2, 280) is a returning starter on the offensive line. Senior Ryan Rowland (6-1, 240), junior Kyle Beemiller (6-1, 280) and sophomore Adam Notestine (6-3, 303) also should see action up front.
Miller split time at quarterback during the first half of last season with 2013 graduate Mason Olszewski, who finished 126-for-204 passing for 1,860 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Olszewski also rushed for 567 yards and three scores, averaged 39 yards per punt to make second-team all-district and was a key player in the defensive backfield.
"Most of our receivers are coming back, and we've got some new people," Miller said. "I think I can take on a lead role this year and hopefully lead the team back to state."
Leading the returnees on defense is senior linebacker Dylan Weigel (6-0, 205), who is the school's all-time leading tackler.
Also back are senior tackles Geno Rollo (6-2, 270) and Alex Reigle (6-2, 220), junior nose tackle Nick Huhn (6-2, 265) and senior end Frankie Weirick (5-11, 185).
Senior Noah Ichite (5-10, 200) and sophomore Hunter Belleau (6-0, 190) at linebacker.
In the defensive backfield, Childers and Welch will be at safety and Chambers and junior Romaeo Whitlow (5-10, 167) will be at cornerback. Whitlow was a part-time starter at Pickerington Central last season. Also expected to see action in the secondary are Howell and sophomore Trezden Johnson (5-11, 175),
Senior Karch Holland returns at kicker after making nine field goals. Gillum or Childers are expected to punt, with Brown, Jabree and junior Jaye Williams (5-10, 150) serving as returners.
North plays the same 10 opponents it did a year ago when it finished fourth in Region 3 in computer points but beat Pickerington Central (24-0), Hilliard Darby (24-14) and Hilliard Davidson (21-0) to win the regional title. North also shut out Central 37-0 during the regular season.
North went on to lose to Cincinnati Moeller 26-21 in a state semifinal when Igwebuike was stopped just short of the goal line and fumbled with 32 seconds remaining.
The Panthers now are competing in Region 2 of Division I after the OHSAA's expansion to seven divisions, and without Butt, Igwebuike and Olszewski, Phillips believes his team might be under the radar.
"We're trying to play as many kids on Fridays as we can," Phillips said.
"We only had 15 seniors last year but we had two high-profile kids. Everyone thinks we have nothing back, and I like that."