Injuries were the main storyline this season for the Hilliard Darby High School football team.
Every week, the injuries mounted, but through it all, the Panthers persevered.
Darby won its final five regular-season games to qualify for the Division I, Region 3 playoffs as the eighth seed and played top-seeded Centerville in the opening round Nov. 3. The host Elks led only 7-0 at halftime but pulled away in the second half for a 35-0 win.
The Panthers finished 7-4 overall.
"We were watching to see the final computer ratings (in Region 3) and, when it came out that we got in, we were excited to be able to accomplish that despite how banged up we were," coach John Santagata said. "We started the Centerville game with 10 starters out. By the time the second half started, some of the guys that tried to go had to exit the game. Plus, we lost a few more, totaling 15 starters out for the second half."
Last season, the Panthers lost six key players to injury, including their starting quarterback. They finished 6-4 and missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
"This was much worse than last year," Santagata said. "We have never experienced anything remotely like this in the last nine years at Darby. In fact, I've never seen anything like it before."
Darby finished 4-2 in the OCC-Cardinal Division to place third, behind Bradley (6-0) and Dublin Jerome (5-1) and ahead of Dublin Scioto (3-3), Worthington Kilbourne (2-4), Delaware (1-5) and Thomas Worthington (0-6).
The Panthers are losing 24 seniors, including 11 who earned all-league honors.
Among the seniors are Donta Ashcraft (DL/LB), Clint Barnett (RB/DB), Tommy Clark (RB/LB), Jack Conley (LB/DB), Jacob Cover (OL/DL), Ian Coverstone (RB/DB), Paul Dillion (OL/DL), Aaron Hampshire (WR/P/DB), Matt Leder (OL/DL), Bobbie Lewis (TE/DL), Taj Long (WR/DB), Tony Santos (RB/LB), Blake Sawicki (K) and Henry Sopko (QB/LB).
Ashcraft, Cover, Coverstone and Lewis all were named first-team all-league. Cover also made second-team all-district on offense.
Ashcraft, who also was special mention all-district, had 49 tackles, including 10.5 for loss, with two sacks and 11 hurries in nine games. Lewis, who also was honorable mention all-district, had 42 tackles, including 7.5 for loss, with one sack and six hurries.
In 10 games, Coverstone rushed for 322 yards on 68 carries, caught four passes for 88 yards and scored two touchdowns on offense and had 43 tackles and two interceptions on defense.
Clark, Leder and Long all were second-team all-league. Clark had a team-high 76 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, and forced two fumbles in 10 games. Long had 55 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles, and Leder had 38 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, and three fumble recoveries.
Sawicki made second-team all-league and special mention all-district. Hampshire was second-team all-league at punter, and Dillion was special mention all-league.
Sopko was the starting quarterback for five games before getting injured, and Barnett was a starter early in the season but missed five games with an injury. Conley had 31 tackles and two interceptions.
"This was an enjoyable season to coach because of the group of seniors that we had," Santagata said. "We started 14 seniors in the first game and had seven senior starters in Week 11, but several couldn't go in the second half. It was a season filled with adversity, but I was proud of how our kids handled the various challenges and continued to work hard.
"This was an amazing senior class in regard to character and work ethic. They were truly a pleasure to coach and were fun to be around. They will be deeply missed."
Starters expected to return include juniors Jaeln Benjamin (DB), Nick Ferko (WR), Grant Hollinger (FB/LB), Jaden Jones (DB), Seth Schmidt (OL), Hayden Vroom (DB) and Nick Wile (LB) and sophomores Creed Galko (OL), Scott Hartline (OL), Jack Stultz (QB) and Canyon Uphouse (RB).
Hollinger, who was second-team all-league, rushed for 341 yards and two touchdowns on 81 carries on offense and recorded 66 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, on defense. Wile, who was honorable mention all-league, had 72 tackles, including three for loss, and forced two fumbles, while Vroom had 53 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, and a team-high three interceptions.
In seven games, Stultz was 17-for-33 passing for 264 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 410 yards and seven touchdowns on 80 carries. Uphouse rushed for 558 yards and five touchdowns on 107 carries in nine games.
"We had a lot of younger kids get significant playing time because of the injuries," Santagata said. "We were starting four sophomores on offense after Week 5 and rotating other sophomores and juniors in throughout the game. Defensively, we were rotating younger kids in as well.
"Next year, we will only go as far as our senior class will take us, regarding their commitment, leadership and toughness."