With 25 seniors on the roster, including several key returnees, Westerville Central High School football coach John Magistro expects his team to make another run at a postseason berth.
After qualifying for the playoffs two years ago, the Warhawks fell just short last season with a 7-3 overall record, finishing ninth in the Division I, Region 3 rankings. The top eight teams qualified for the postseason.
"We have 25 seniors and we have senior leadership, and that makes a big difference with your football team," said Magistro, whose squad will open at home against Division III DeSales on Friday, Aug. 30. "The seniors have been looking forward to this day ever since they stepped into this high school."
Following divisional realignment last spring by the OHSAA, Central will compete in Division I, Region 1. Division I now includes schools with 608 or more boys.
The traditional postseason format in which the top eight teams in each region qualify for the playoffs will remain in place in Divisions II through VII. Division I will be divided into Northern and Southern region, however, with 16 teams making the playoffs in each region.
Central's optimism is spearheaded by the return of senior quarterback Jared Drake (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) in the Warhawks' spread offense.
After transferring from Upper Arlington following his sophomore season, Drake completed 95 of 198 passes for 1,308 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions, and he also rushed for 951 yards and 12 touchdowns on 144 carries. He was first-team all-league and special mention all-district.
"Everyone wants to talk about him on the field, but it's just the way he conducts himself," Magistro said. "He requires nothing but the best out of himself."
Also back is senior tailback Alex Fisher (5-8, 205), who rushed for 734 yards and four touchdowns and was second-team all-league.
"We have a lot of seniors coming back, so we feel we have a lot of time to do some good things this year," Fisher said. "We have to come back stronger than ever and work on the things that we couldn't fix from last season. We feel like we made a lot of mistakes in big games. We just have to be stronger this year and push through it."
Other key running backs should be seniors Jordan Bratton (6-2, 240), Justin Head (6-0, 260) and Adam Lowe (5-6, 190) and junior Andy Oppliger (6-2, 210). Head is a transfer from McConnelsville Morgan.
Wide receivers will include seniors Eldin Anu (5-10, 160), Zach Crumpler (6-0, 170), David Hatchett (5-9, 175), Micah Lowe (5-10, 178), Tommy Mansfield (5-10, 170) and Jalon Talley (6-3, 170) and junior Ty Holmes (5-8, 160).
Senior Jeremiah Shaw (6-3, 215) and junior Nate Jackowski (6-2, 210) should be the top tight ends.
Senior Nick Richardson (6-5, 290) returns to lead the offensive line at left tackle. Richardson, who has verbally committed to the University of Kentucky, was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Senior Jason Gruber (6-1, 210) returns at center, and other key linemen are seniors Jarrett Jarvis (6-0, 190), Isayah Walker (6-0, 270) and Trey Woods (6-0, 180), juniors Jeffrey Mix (6-2, 240) and Nate Traini (5-10, 250) and sophomore Jalen Carter (6-2, 265).
Traini is a transfer from DeSales.
Senior Hunter Robertson (6-0, 180), who is a midfielder on the boys soccer team, will be the kicker and punter, and Drake can also punt.
The Warhawks' base defense will be a 4-2-5 formation, according to Magistro.
Magistro called Drake and Richardson two of the team's top defensive players, but he will attempt to limit their plays because of their heavy workload on offense. Drake had two interceptions at cornerback a year ago, and Richardson plays tackle on defense.
Gruber and senior Troy Buchholz (5-10, 190) are ends and junior Ben Cooper (6-3, 286), Head, Traini and Walker are tackles.
Linebackers include Bratton, Adam Lowe and Oppliger, and the the secondary will feature Anu, Crumpler and Hatchett at cornerback, and senior Kyle Ulliman (6-2, 180), junior Justice Jenkins (5-8, 182), Jackowski, Shaw and Talley at safety.
"I love this (job)," said Magistro, who earned his 200th career coaching victory last season with a 29-17 win over Worthington Kilbourne. "We have kids who have bought into it. Our offseason is exactly where we expected it to be.
"Our kids' work ethic is just so good. If we can stay healthy and develop an offensive and defensive line, we feel our chances are very good."
After sharing the league title with Olentangy Liberty and Westerville South in 2011 at 5-2, the Warhawks (4-3) slipped to fourth last season behind champion Hilliard Darby (7-0), Dublin Scioto (6-1) and Westerville South (5-2).
Canal Winchester has replaced Worthington Kilbourne, which moved to the OCC-Capital.
South should again be a contender, Magistro said, as the Warhawks will look for their first win over the Wildcats when the teams meet Oct. 17.
South leads the series 6-0, including last season's 50-28 win at Central.
"Westerville South is always going to have good talent, speed," said Magistro, whose team's conference opener is Sept. 20 at Dublin Scioto. "They're a good football team year in and year out. Canal has athletes. Their track program is good.
"With Darby, when you win the following year it breeds confidence. Scioto was good last year. The OCC is very competitive."