In the aftermath of a 32-29 loss to Toledo Whitmer in a Division I, Region 2 semifinal Nov. 10 at Tiffin, Olentangy High School football coach Mark Solis regretted some defensive and special teams gaffes that helped end the Braves' season.
The top-seeded Panthers began their final two drives at Olentangy's 40 and their own 42-yard line, respectively, and after being held out of the end zone on three of four second-half possessions, they punched through at the worst possible time from the fifth-seeded Braves' perspective.
Whitmer's Jasean Rader caught two touchdown passes from Riley Keller in the final 3 minutes, 2 seconds, the last from 10 yards with 10 seconds left. The Braves finished 8-4 overall.
"I'll tip my hat to (Whitmer); they played well but when you hit this point, you have to be good at everything. We were pretty good at everything except kickoffs," Solis said. "We'll have a lot of conversations during the offseason about special teams. We lost the battle of field position and you can't put your defense in those kinds of situations. We had a chance to make a stop but missed some tackles.
"We fought to the bitter end."
Rader's first touchdown catch was from 7 yards and gave Whitmer a 24-23 lead, its first since 3-0 in the first quarter.
"I'm on my own island so I can get man-to-man coverage and that's what it was," Rader said of the winning score.
Olentangy made a huge play of its own to take the lead on the possession after Rader's first touchdown. On fourth-and-1 at the Whitmer 47, senior quarterback Riley Bruening popped a quick pass over the middle to junior tight end Ian Drummond, who quickly got behind a Panthers defense that was stacked on the line to stop a running play and rumbled to the end zone for a 29-24 lead with 52 seconds left.
"We installed that play (last) week and saved it until the perfect time," Solis said. "It was on the script and it was the perfect moment to call it."
Bruening had touchdown runs of 1 and 7 yards in the second quarter to give Olentangy, which ultimately outgained Whitmer 423-281, a 17-10 halftime lead.
Senior kicker Josh Petrone added field goals of 36, 33 and 34 yards.
Olentangy started 2-0, with wins over Hilliard Darby (45-24 on Aug. 25) and Grove City (21-10 on Sept.1) before its most lopsided loss of the season, 31-7 at Reynoldsburg on Sept. 8.
The Braves bounced back with three consecutive wins, over Dublin Coffman (31-14 on Sept. 15), Marysville (21-14 on Sept. 22) and Westerville South (42-23 on Sept. 29), before losing in back-to-back weeks to its sister schools, 30-28 to Orange on Oct. 6 and 28-17 to Liberty on Oct. 13.
The Braves finished the regular season with two wins, 48-14 at Westerville North on Oct. 20 and 35-31 over Westerville Central on Oct. 27.
Olentangy was 3-2 in the OCC-Buckeye Division, finishing third behind Liberty (5-0) and Orange (4-1) and ahead of Central (2-3), South (1-4) and North (0-5).
Olentangy's postseason opener was dramatic as well, as it erased three 10-point deficits Nov. 3 at fourth-seeded Coffman to win 28-24. Freshman Jace Middleton caught the winning 33-yard touchdown pass from Bruening with 27 seconds left.
The Braves are 47-13 the past five seasons under Solis and have made the playoffs four years in a row.
"I'm proud of what we've accomplished," Solis said. "We had to deal with the opening of a new high school (Berlin next year) and knowing we're going to lose about 40 percent of our kids to the new school. That's tough to handle as a coach. I think we managed it well ... but we had a good season. We had a lot to celebrate. There were a lot of good things. I feel like we should be playing (this) week, but we have a lot of good things to look back on."
Bruening was named first-team all-league and second-team all-district. He completed 174 of 266 passes for 2,166 yards with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions and rushed for 757 yards and eight touchdowns on 161 carries.
Senior Ali Iverson led the running game with 880 yards and nine touchdowns on 196 carries and was named second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district. Junior Caden Kaiser, a first-team all-league and all-district honoree, had 51 catches for 915 yards and eight scores.
Senior defensive lineman Jacob Slade had 65 tackles and two sacks through 11 games and was named league co-Defensive Player of the Year and first-team all-district. His twin brother and position mate, Zach Slade (53 tackles, 5 sacks), was first-team all-district. Both are Michigan State commits.
Seniors Ethan Gates (OL), Xavier Harrison (LB) and Petrone and junior defensive back DeAnte Ables were second-team all-league. Senior offensive lineman Nathan Murphy was special mention all-league and junior wide receiver Luke Riedel (36 catches, 316 yards, 2 TDs) was honorable mention all-league.
Drummond had 37 catches for 474 yards and six touchdowns and was second-team all-district.
Harrison and Petrone were special mention all-district.