An emotional Jared Drake recognized his teammates for a final time moments after the season came to an end for the Westerville Central High School football team with a 40-24 loss to Austintown Fitch in a Division I, Region 1 second-round game Nov. 16 at Arlin Field in Mansfield.
Seeded fifth in the region, the Warhawks produced their most successful season in program history, finishing 10-2 overall, winning the OCC-Cardinal Division title outright and posting their first playoff win.
Central defeated 12th-seeded Solon 55-7 in the first round Nov. 9 at home before falling to the fourth-seeded Falcons.
"I say a prayer at the end of every game and that was by far the toughest prayer because I love my teammates," said Drake, a senior quarterback and defensive back who transferred from Upper Arlington before his junior year. "When I moved here, they welcomed me with open arms. These guys are like brothers to me and it was tough because that is the last time I'll be on the football field with these boys."
Central led Fitch 24-14 in the second quarter, but its lead was cut to 24-20 before halftime and it was outscored 20-0 in the second half. The Warhawks, who had six turnovers, were limited to 63 total yards over the final two quarters after amassing 277 in the first half.
Drake completed 12 of 26 passes for 240 yards with two touchdowns and a season-high four interceptions.
"I thought we played hard," said coach John Magistro, who completed his fifth season. "It wasn't like we quit. (Fitch is) a good football team. We had a few turnovers that we don't usually have.
"We had to play on a short field a lot of times defensively. They took advantage, so give them the credit."
Ranked second in the final state poll, Fitch improved to 12-0 and advanced to play top-seeded Lakewood St. Edward in a regional semifinal Saturday, Nov. 23.
Central went 7-0 in the OCC-Cardinal to finish ahead of Hilliard Darby (6-1), Hilliard Bradley (5-2), Dublin Scioto (4-3), Westerville South (3-4), Dublin Jerome (2-5), Westerville North (1-6) and Canal Winchester (0-7).
The Warhawks opened the season with a 29-7 win over DeSales on Aug. 30. They then lost to New Albany 57-50 on Sept. 6 before embarking on a nine-game winning streak, which ended with the loss to Fitch.
This season marked Central's second postseason appearance. It lost to Gahanna 38-21 in the first round of the Division I, Region 3 playoffs in 2011.
"The guys just really bought into the coaches' program," Drake said. "These coaches put in endless hours of work to get us to where we got. They're just as determined as we are. We bought into it and I know each and every one of these guys would play their hearts out for these coaches."
Drake was one of 24 seniors on the Warhawks' roster. On the season, he completed 170 of 260 passes for 2,873 yards with 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and rushed for 745 yards and nine touchdowns on 129 carries.
Drake was named district Offensive Player of the Year, OCC-Cardinal Player of the Year and captain of ThisWeek's Super 25 team.
Senior running back Alex Fisher rushed for 722 yards and 15 touchdowns on 117 carries and was first-team all-league and special mention all-district.
Senior offensive lineman Nick Richardson, who has committed to the University of Kentucky, was first-team all-district and all-league.
Senior wide receiver and defensive back Eldin Anu, who had 36 catches for 472 yards and five touchdowns, made first-team all-district on defense and was second-team all-league.
Sophomore wide receiver Cedric Frierson had 38 catches for 839 yards and 10 touchdowns and was second-team all-district and all-league.
Senior wide receiver Tommy Mansfield, who had 35 catches for 633 yards and six touchdowns, and senior place-kicker Hunter Robertson were first-team all-league and special mention all-district and senior defensive backs Micah Lowe and Kyle Ulliman were first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Senior offensive lineman Jason Gruber and junior defensive lineman Ben Cooper were second-team all-league. Senior defensive back Jeremiah Shaw was special mention all-league and honorable mention all-district, senior linebacker Adam Lowe was honorable mention all-district and all-league, senior defensive back Zach Crumpler was special mention all-league and senior running back Justin Head was honorable mention all-district.
Head rushed for 522 yards and 10 touchdowns on 44 carries, and sophomore running back Benny Snell ran for 501 yards and eight touchdowns on 68 carries.
"I wouldn't trade this senior class for anybody," said a tearful Magistro, who was named OCC-Cardinal Coach of the Year. "They've come a long way. They're responsible for getting this program here. They're going to be the first class that goes out of here never playing on a losing team. They were in the playoffs twice, as sophomores and seniors this year, so they've left their mark."