Timmy Bates acknowledges that finishing 5-5 overall this season was a disappointment for the Westerville South High School football team.
All the same, the senior quarterback believes the Wildcats were just three plays away from going 8-2 and qualifying for the Division I, Region 2 playoffs.
He points to losses to Clayton Northmont (24-14 on Sept. 6), Hilliard Bradley (52-48 on Sept. 27) and Dublin Scioto (31-24 in overtime Oct. 4) as games in which the Wildcats let victory slip through their fingers.
"There were three games that we were one play away from winning, which altered our season in the wrong direction," Bates said. "We had a blown coverage against Northmont, where we gave up a touchdown that put the game out of reach. We had 12 chances to make a defensive stop against Hilliard Bradley that could have ended their drives and given us the ball, but we allowed them to get a first down or score each time.
And we had a (34-yard) field goal blocked (as time expired) against Dublin Scioto that would have given us the win. It's frustrating to know that we were so close from having a much better season."
The Wildcats went 4-0 against teams that finished with a losing record, beating Groveport 48-20 on Aug. 30, Canal Winchester 50-7 on Sept. 20, Dublin Jerome 21-0 on Oct. 25 and Westerville North 48-19 on Nov. 1.
However, they went 1-5 against opponents who finished with a winning record, beating Grove City (17-14 on Sept. 13) and losing to Northmont, Bradley, Scioto, Hilliard Darby (52-17 on Oct. 11) and Westerville Central (54-35 on Oct. 17).
South went 3-4 in the OCC-Cardinal Division to place fifth, behind Central (7-0), Darby (6-1), Bradley (5-2) and Scioto (4-3) and ahead of Jerome (2-5), North (1-6) and Canal Winchester (0-7).
"We had some mental lapses that hurt us during our four-game losing streak in the middle of the season," coach Rocky Pentello said. "We play in the strongest conference around this area, and if we could have just won a couple more close games, I think we could have been a playoff team.
"Grove City was a real fun game and we pulled together to win it at the end. And it was nice to win our last two games of the season against Dublin Jerome and Westerville North because we were 3-5 at that point and it showed a lot about this team's character that we didn't pack it in."
South loses 10 senior starters from its spread offense in Bates, wide receivers Torrodd Carter, Darryl Long and Joshua Wilson, tight end Curtis Mitchell, linemen D-Andre Curenton, Kris Holman, Adam Thesing and Nick Woodbury and running back Darien Miller.
Miller rushed for 1,210 yards and 21 touchdowns on 209 carries and was named second-team all-league.
Bates, who was 135-for-247 passing for 2,049 yards with 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions and rushed for 480 yards and two scores on 83 carries, was special mention all-league.
Carter had 63 catches for 1,111 yards and 10 touchdowns and was honorable mention all-league.
Junior Rob Dowdy, who started every game at left tackle and is a Division I college recruit, and junior Charles Cartwright, who started the last four games at right guard after Holman suffered a season-ending knee injury, are expected back, along with junior wide receiver Abu Damary and junior running back Devan Wade
Damary had 19 catches for 300 yards and two touchdowns and Wade rushed for 189 yards and two scores on 20 carries.
South loses senior place-kicker Phil Wenzinger but expects to return junior punter Joey Freeman.
The Wildcats lose seven seniors who started multiple games on defense in linemen Mylan Kelso, Andrew Wilush and Mitchell, cornerback Trey Harden and linebackers Ethan Frank, Mike Thesing and Kamaree Walden.
Mitchell had 105 tackles and was first-team all-league. Walden had 114 tackles and Harden had 67 tackles and five interceptions.
Expected returnees who started multiple games on defense are junior linemen Ben Finn and Shuron Howard, sophomore linemen Anthony Imondi and Zach Wachalec, juniors Quinton Jones, Charles Thigpen and Wade at cornerback and Damary and sophomore Daylan Haynie at safety.
Damary had 81 tackles and was second-team all-league, with Imondi (78), Wachalec (67), Thigpen (65) and Howard (56) also having more than 50 tackles.
"We're losing a lot of offensive linemen, so their biggest strength next year will be their skills players, because guys like Devan Wade and Abu will surprise people," Bates said. "We finished this season with two wins and hopefully that will carry over into next season."