The Thomas Worthington High School football team went 4-6 overall this season, representing the most wins by the Cardinals since they finished with the same record in 2013.
First-year coach Matt Zingery hopes the season marks the beginning of turning around the program, which hasn't had a winning season since finishing 7-3 in 1999 and hasn't won more than four games since going 5-5 in 2009.
"We made progress as a program in terms of wins and losses, but we are very proud of the change in culture within our program," Zingery said. "Our growth in our players' commitment and accountability has been outstanding. We really feel that we have laid a foundation."
And yet, the season was close to being much, much better.
In fact, the only games Zingery thought his team should have lost were a 31-17 loss to Hilliard Bradley on Sept. 22 and a 45-14 loss to Hilliard Darby on Oct. 6. Both teams qualified for the Division I, Region 3 playoffs.
"We should've won four more games, but we struggled to finish halves and games and that's something we need to work on for next year," he said. "It wasn't just one phase or one consistent thing that caused us to lose those four games."
Thomas lost to Kilbourne 26-25 in overtime on Sept. 15, fell to Dublin Jerome 33-32 on Sept. 29, lost to Delaware 21-17 on Oct. 13 and lost to Dublin Scioto 20-7 on Oct 20 en route to finishing 0-6 in the OCC-Cardinal Division.
The Cardinals led Kilbourne until the middle of the fourth quarter and their two-point conversion run in overtime came up short, and they led Jerome 32-21 in the fourth quarter but allowed the winning touchdown on a 5-yard pass with 6 seconds remaining.
Against Delaware, Thomas allowed 21 points in the final minute of the first half, with a muffed kickoff setting up one touchdown and an interception return resulting in another.
Against Scioto, the Cardinals gave up 13 points in the final 52 seconds. With the score tied at 7, they missed a second field-goal attempt of the game, a 35-yarder, with just under 2 minutes remaining. A few plays later, Scioto's Kenyon Pannell scored on a 60-yard run with 52 seconds left. The Irish added a touchdown on the final play of the game with a 58-yard fumble return.
The Cardinals began the season strong, beating Canal Winchester 27-20 in double overtime on Aug. 25 to snap a 17-game losing streak. They followed with wins over Westerville North (45-21 on Sept. 1) and Groveport (47-13 on Sept. 8), but lost their next six games before closing the season Oct. 27 with a 35-7 win at Lexington.
"While we may have broken a 17-game losing streak overall, next year we need to break our 27-game losing streak in conference play," Zingery said. "In order to do that, we will have a full offseason with our players and staff in our system."
Finishing ahead of Thomas in the OCC-Cardinal were Bradley (6-0), Jerome (5-1), Darby (4-2), Scioto (3-3), Kilbourne (2-4) and Delaware (1-5).
The Cardinals are losing 18 seniors, many of whom played on both sides of the football. The offense will be affected greatly, as receivers/slotbacks Khalil Jones, Cameron Ryan, Dakarey Williams and Fletch Curran all played key roles, as did tight end Charlie Kneessi.
The Cardinals also lose four offensive linemen in Adam Cooper, Matt McCallister, Josh Suncire and James Towns.
Jones led the team's receivers with 49 catches for 753 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games.
The defense included eight seniors in linemen Josh Keese and Lou Dykstra, linebackers Layne Burns and Kneessi and backs Vincent Eguakun, Nick Kendig, Jones and Williams.
Kneessi led the team in tackles with 92, followed by Burns with 85. Keese had 48 tackles and Williams had 45.
Jones was named first-team all-league. Burns and Keese were on the second team, and Kendig was honorable mention.
Among the expected key returnees are juniors Habib Bundu (LB), DiJahn Davis (RB), Ethan Hughes (OL) and Charlie Rhoades (QB).
Davis led the team in rushing with 908 yards and six touchdowns on 158 carries and was special mention all-league, and Rhoades was 118-for-198 passing for 1,467 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Bundu had 59 tackles.
"Our upcoming junior class has several standouts in Habib Bundu, Charlie Rhoades and DiJahn Davis, but lacks overall numbers," Zingery said. "However, some others were stuck behind talented seniors and we are looking forward to seeing what they can do next year.
"But we will again be relying on several underclassmen to play and contribute on a regular basis. We are excited about who we have in our program.