The Whetstone High School football team played a bit shorthanded a year ago, as the Braves got a late start understanding and practicing the systems implemented by coach Don Poff during his first season.
They won three of their final four games, however, to finish 4-6 overall and 3-4 in the City League-North Division. Now, with a season of experience and a full offseason to absorb Poff's approach, the Braves are hoping to reach higher levels.
"We put the spread offense in and it took a while for the kids to make adjustments,"said Poff, whose team opens Friday, Aug. 30 at home against Columbus South. "Everything was new: the offense, defense and coaches. The kids know the system now and believe in what we're trying to accomplish. They've worked hard and bonded and they share the same goal -- to win."
Whetstone lost five offensive starters to graduation, including four on the line, but the only skill-position player missing from last year is receiver Yusef Conteh. The 2013 graduate had 49 receptions for 693 yards with nine touchdowns.
Senior quarterback Ramroth Finnegan (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) has several capable receivers in seniors Tony Cordetti, Trent Harper and Chris North and sophomore Aiden Tuttle.
Finnegan was 187-for-358 passing for 2,458 yards and 20 touchdowns and ran 92 times for 403 yards and three scores. He was special team all-district in Division II, as was Conteh and classmate Dezwan Polk, a defensive lineman who is playing at Purdue.
"Finnegan is a Division I college prospect who has heard from many MAC schools already," Poff said. "He has all the tools. He's got a great arm, runs a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash and is a strong leader."
In a 71-28 loss to Hilliard Darby in the opener, Finnegan threw for 517 yards, tying for the 19th-highest single-game passing total ever in Ohio. Finnegan had four games of more than 300 yards passing, including an 84-26 victory over Africentric when he threw six touchdown passes.
Harper had 30 receptions for 449 yards and three touchdowns. North caught 39 passes for 333 yards and four scores. Tuttle had 21 catches for 321 yards and three touchdowns.
"We've got a number of weapons I can get the ball to," Finnegan said. "Tuttle, Harper, Cordetti, (senior David) Simmons and (junior Justus) Barnett are all very good receivers and then we have two guys -- (junior Austin) Davy and (junior Melek) White -- who can catch it and make plays out of the backfield.
"I think having a full year working together in this offense is going to make a huge difference. We went on our own maybe twice a week to indoor complexes to throw for an hour starting last January. We're more comfortable. The routes and cuts are more precise, they're coming back to the ball and the fades are great. Our timing is more in sync and we're expecting big things."
Senior guard Demetrius Wade (6-1, 275) is the lone returning starter on the line. He will be joined by senior Shane Johnson (6-0, 245) and juniors Jeremy Polk (6-4, 325), James Summerall (5-10, 220) and Brendon Fabian (5-11, 195).
"Wade is the drill sergeant of the group and Polk is a big kid and very athletic," Poff said. "We lost a lot of big linemen last year and we may be a bit smaller overall, but these guys are moving their feet and they have a grasp on the blocking schemes."
The 4-3 defense will be led by linebackers Barnett and Davy. Senior Demetri Burrell (5-11, 175) and junior Ryan Burnett (5-11, 185) are vying for the other linebacker position. The line should include seniors Nate Huffman (5-11, 220) and Laquan Seally (6-0, 195) and juniors Rufus Dixon (6-0, 200) and Summerall.
The defensive backfield is deep and talented, with senior Darius Bester joining Harper and White. Also expected to see action are seniors Quintez Poole, Mitchell Tijernia and Devon White-Revere.
"Justus Barnett is an exceptional athlete and will make an impact whenever he steps on the field," Poff said. "Huffman and Dixon should hold down the defensive line.
"Harper and Bester will lead a strong group in the back. Harper is extremely talented and can play anywhere on the field. He has tremendous football IQ. Bester is a delight to watch and runs a legit 4.3 40, so he'll also be used at running back."
Harper was honorable mention all-district, as was 2013 graduate Gabe Rife on the offensive line.
"I think we have a lot of talent and the kids have worked very hard, so we're expecting big things," Poff said.