The Upper Arlington High School football team can use two losses to Hilliard Davidson last season as motivation as it prepares to play host to the Wildcats in an OCC-Central Division game on Friday, Oct. 5.
But Davidson coach Brian White is quick to point out that many names and faces have changed since last season, when the Wildcats defeated the Golden Bears 25-7 win in week six of the regular season and 15-6 in a Division I, Region 3 semifinal.
"We both graduated good senior classes and both of us are playing a lot of juniors," White said. "There's a perception Upper Arlington is down this year, but then you also must say Hilliard Davidson is down this year, too. That said, we have tremendous respect for them and it'll be a tough game. It always is."
Davidson is 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the OCC-Central and UA is 3-3 and 2-1. The Wildcats and Bears are tied for third in the league, one game behind Dublin Coffman and Olentangy Liberty, both of which are 3-0.
"This is a must-win for us. We have to win the rest of our games," said UA senior running back Gus Ackley, whose team is coming off a 63-27 win over Central Crossing on Sept. 28. "Our loss to Olentangy Liberty (37-21 in a game suspended by lightning Sept. 21 and completed the next day) wasn't a good example of who we are. If we can take our play this week and keep doing that this week and down the line, we feel good about what we can do."
White hopes his team is rounding into preferred form. He said the Wildcats played well in a 33-10 loss to Coffman on Sept. 14 and even better in a 42-6 win over Central Crossing on Sept. 22, but regressed last week in a 35-14 win over Westland.
"I thought we took a step back. We weren't quite as focused as we needed to be," said White, whose team scored 15 points in the second quarter against Westland to take a 22-0 lead into halftime. "I don't think we were emotionally prepared to play. I didn't really like our approach to the game. We didn't appear to be intense enough. When we play Upper Arlington, we must be ready."
Running back E.J. Jennings, who missed most of last season because of a broken ankle, is anchoring Davidson's offense. The 6-foot, 218-pound senior ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries against Westland and has six touchdowns this season.
D.D. Clark added 108 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries against Westland, as Davidson amassed 375 of its 401 total yards on the ground.
UA has been led by Ackley, a pair of two-way linemen in senior Nick Milo and junior Noah Spielman and junior linebackers Chris Frey and Chase Greenlee. The Bears were hampered by instability at the skill positions early in the season, as senior quarterback Alex Husted was sidelined by a concussion sustained in a 45-7 loss to Gahanna on Sept. 7.
His backup, junior Harrison Heath, also went down against the Lions, as he suffered a knee injury. The Bears' third-string quarterback, sophomore Kyle Kaparos, took over in the second half against the Lions and has shown poise in the pocket, guiding the Bears to two wins in three games and completing 10 of 13 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns against Central Crossing.
But Ackley has been the offense's backbone, rushing for 643 yards and nine touchdowns on 75 carries through five games. Against Central Crossing, UA featured Frey at running back, as he ran for 181 yards and four touchdowns on nine carries and caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Kaparos, who also threw a 79-yard touchdown pass to Ackley.
"We can feel our offense coming together," Ackley said. "We ran a lot of different plays (against Central Crossing) and things worked. Kyle's a good guy to have on the field. He always stays composed. Even as a sophomore, he's a quiet leader of the offense."