Mershawn Rice likes how his teammates on the Reynoldsburg High School football team have reacted since they found out they would be sitting at home for the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
The Raiders won three of their last four games, including beating Division I, Region 2 playoff qualifier Gahanna 21-14 on Oct. 6 and closing the regular season with a 42-34 victory over Lancaster on Oct. 27.
Those victories weren't enough, though, to get Reynoldsburg into the Division I, Region 3 postseason despite a 7-3 record.
The Raiders beat another playoff team as well, handing Region 2 qualifier Olentangy a 31-7 defeat Sept. 8, and all three of their losses came to teams that made the postseason. They went undefeated at home for the first time since 2001, going 5-0.
Hilliard Darby finished with 21.45 points to earn the eighth and final seed for the playoffs while the Raiders finished with 21.4 points and settled for ninth. Darby lost to top-seeded Centerville 35-0 on Nov. 3 in a first-round game.
"We still have a lot of talent coming back and a lot of the players are willing to work and get better," Rice said. "We all feel we should have made the playoffs this year at a 7-3 record. ... The guys are going to be motivated."
Rice, a junior wide receiver and defensive back who has six scholarship offers, closed the season with five catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns against Lancaster.
With 36 receptions for 701 yards and eight touchdowns along with three interceptions, Rice again should be one of the Raiders' go-to players a year from now.
The Raiders also should return their top two running backs in juniors J'Vonte Edwards and Guy Cowans-Wright. Edwards rushed for 256 yards and three touchdowns over the first four games before suffering a season-ending injury, while Cowans-Wright rushed for 668 yards and six touchdowns on 137 carries.
Junior wide receiver Princeton Hoskins had 28 receptions for 319 yards and one touchdown and rushed for a score.
Other key receivers included sophomore Shon Strickland (10 catches for 160 yards, 2 touchdowns) and junior Camby Goff (12 catches for 234 yards, 2 touchdowns).
The biggest holes on offense will be at quarterback, where senior Justin Henry was 81-for-166 passing for 1,230 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, and on the line, where Joe Boggs and Kyle Hawthorne were starters. Boggs has committed to Ball State.
The Raiders lost their opener to New Albany 15-13 on Aug. 24 and won their next four, but losses to Pickerington North (35-7 on Sept. 29) and Pickerington Central (41-7 on Oct. 20) left them chasing playoff points during the final weeks of the regular season.
Central won the OCC-Ohio Division at 5-0 and North was runner-up at 4-1, followed by the Raiders (3-2), Gahanna (2-3), Lancaster (1-4) and Grove City (0-5).
"When we lost to New Albany, we had so many new starters out there," coach Buddy White said. "We made a lot of opening-game mistakes, but then they settled down after that."
Reynoldsburg has four new teams on its non-league schedule next season, beginning with its opener against Upper Arlington. The other new teams are Licking Heights, Springboro and Westerville South, while Central Crossing is returning to the schedule.
While Central Crossing, UA and Westerville South all went 4-6 this season, Licking Heights is a Division II team like South that went 6-4 and Springboro went 5-5 to finish 11th in Division I, Region 4.
Sophomore Michael Whatley could be the favorite to take over at quarterback after completing 20 of 36 passes for 328 yards with three touchdowns.
Juniors Jay Amburgey and Savion Turner and sophomore Jalen Bowens all were key offensive linemen.
Defensively, senior Elijah Ratliff led the way on the line with 57.5 tackles and 14 tackles for loss.
Amburgey (DL) finished with 39.5 tackles and 11 tackles for loss, junior linebacker Dezman Cooper had 50.5 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss, junior linebacker Ke'Shun Moorer had 66 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss and Goff had 38.5 tackles at safety.
Juniors Donovan Hines (DB, 40 tackles), Trenton Scherger (DL, 6.5 tackles for loss) and Khyrek Woods (LB, 31 tackles) and sophomore Courtland Bullard (DB, 1 interception) are others eligible to return.
On special teams, the Raiders must replace kicker and punter Gabe Philhower, who made five field goals, 30 of 31 extra-point attempts and averaged 36.9 yards per punt.
"We've got a lot of guys with starting experience coming back," White said. "We've still got to play the games, but we feel real good about what we've got coming back. Most people don't realize where we were before I got here (in 2011), and we've only had one losing season in seven years. We still think there's another level this program can reach."