During their bus ride home after a game against Gahanna on the rainy night of Sept. 7, members of the Upper Arlington High School football team wondered how they would recover from a historic low.
The Golden Bears were 1-2 and had just endured their second lopsided loss in a row. They lost 45-7 to the Lions after losing by the same score to Cincinnati Elder on Aug. 31. It marked the first time in their program's 86-year history that they had lost back-to-back games by 38 or more points.
On top of that, UA was down to its third quarterback in sophomore Kyle Kaparos, as senior Alex Husted suffered a concussion against Gahanna and his backup, junior Harrison Heath, also went down with an injury against the Lions.
A daunting OCC-Central Division schedule loomed, including perennial playoff contenders Hilliard Davidson and Dublin Coffman. But the Bears pushed on, albeit with a changed cast from when they opened the season with a 43-20 win over Walnut Ridge on Aug. 24, and eventually they were rewarded.
A three-game winning streak to end the season improved UA to 6-4 overall and 5-2 in the OCC-Central, enough to avoid the Bears' first losing season since 2004 and only their second since 1963.
"Perseverance and integrity," coach Mike Golden said of the qualities he noticed most in this year's team. "We taught our young men to behave with character and integrity every day in practice and they have. They could have thrown in the towel and they didn't."
A 42-14 home loss to Davidson on Oct. 5 left UA at 3-4 and 1-2, effectively ending its hopes for a league championship and a Division I, Region 3 playoff berth. But the Bears recovered, defeating Marysville 28-20 on Oct. 12 and Westland 54-7 on Oct. 19 before saving their best for last, going on the road and upsetting previously undefeated Coffman 23-14 on Oct. 26 in their regular-season finale.
Senior running back Gus Ackley ran for 204 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries, including an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of the second half, and UA benefited from six turnovers by the Shamrocks.
"We didn't see ourselves as a 5-4 team," said Ackley, who finished the season with 1,337 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns on 166 carries and 14 receptions for 257 yards and three touchdowns to earn first-team all-league and second-team all-district honors. "At Upper Arlington, we finish hard no matter what happens."
UA finished with a winning record for the 74th time. The Bears went 5-5 in 2009, 1995, 1986 and 1976 and have had only eight losing seasons -- 2004 (4-6), 1963 (3-5-1), 1956 (3-5-1), 1954 (4-5), 1953 (2-6-1), 1947 (3-6), 1933 (4-5) and 1930 (2-6).
UA's all-time record is 595-212-21.
"Every week has been a challenge. We had a lot of different struggles," senior two-way lineman Nick Milo said. "Coming into (the Coffman game), we knew we didn't have a shot at the playoffs, but we just didn't want to be 5-5. That's not Golden Bear football. We wanted to keep up the tradition of winning teams. We knew as a senior class, we deserved better than 5-5. We came in with nothing to lose. It was a great way to play. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain."
UA went 5-2 in the OCC-Central to tie Olentangy Liberty for third, behind co-champions Coffman (6-1) and Davidson (6-1) and ahead of Marysville (3-4), Thomas Worthington (2-5), Central Crossing (1-6) and Westland (0-7).
The Bears lose 18 seniors, including Ackley, Husted, Milo, Robbie Baskent (K), Will Hess (OL/DL), Jack Mueller (RB/LB), Brian Muh (OL/DL), Cody Pfister (RB/LB) and Matt Schulz (OL/DL).
Milo had 53 tackles and a team-high six sacks and was named first-team all-league and second-team all-district on defense. Husted, who also played defensive back, made second-team all-league and Mueller and Gibbs were special mention and honorable mention all-league, respectively.
Among the expected returnees is junior Chris Frey (RB/LB), who was first-team all-league and special mention all-district. He had team-highs in tackles (136) and solo tackles (31) and had 3 1/2 sacks. He also rushed for 645 yards and 10 touchdowns on 67 carries and caught six passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns.
Juniors Chase Greenlee (RB/LB), Noah Spielman (OL/DL) and Sam Wheeler (WR/DB) made second-team all-league. Spielman had 64 tackles and two sacks.
Among the other expected key returnees are Heath, Kaparos, juniors Jackson Finfrock (WR/DB) and Lewis Hughes (WR/DB) and sophomore Jackson Pfister (TE/DE).
Hughes caught seven passes for 119 yards and made 51 tackles, and Kaparos started behind center the final seven games, completing 43 of 102 passes for 701 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions.