Despite being in a situation that coach Bruce Ward compared to "kind of starting from scratch" from an experience standpoint, the Gahanna Lincoln High School football team isn't planning to be a pushover in the OCC-Ohio Division this fall.
The Lions' performance during a 27-13 loss Sept. 27 at defending Division I state champion Pickerington Central -- particularly on defense -- backs up that expectation.
Wet field conditions and a size disadvantage made it difficult for Gahanna to move the ball throughout the game, but the Lions found themselves within one score in the fourth quarter and didn't allow any second-half points until the final minute.
"Obviously graduating the kids we graduated and losing the kids we lost in the offseason, we knew it was going to be tough, but I'm proud of the way our kids fight and get better week by week," Ward said. "If we can play with (Central), I don't think there are too many people on our schedule we can't play with."
Gahanna is 3-3 overall and 0-1 in the league as it continues OCC-Ohio action Friday, Oct. 5, at home against Reynoldsburg.
The Raiders figure to pose a similar test from a style standpoint considering their biggest strengths might be their corps of offensive and defensive linemen. Those players include seniors Jay Amburgey, Jeremiah Burton and Dezman Cooper.
Also similarly to Central, Reynoldsburg will challenge Gahanna's defense with a running-back-by-committee approach.
The Raiders improved to 6-0, which is their best start since 1961, with a 33-31 victory over Pickerington North on Sept. 28 to open league play.
"I feel like this year we're a lot more disciplined (defensively)," senior linebacker David Williams said. "I love the way we battled back (against Central). We've had a lot of games where we've played that we've been better in the second half anyway, and I feel like it shows that we like to smack teams in the second half."
Williams is joined at linebacker by seniors Sam Young and Zajdi Hoxha and junior Mason Weber. Senior defensive back LaCarr Trent also has been a bright spot on defense, including an interception return for a score in a 14-13 victory over Westerville Central on Sept. 21.
Against Pickerington Central, Young had a fumble recovery, Williams had a pair of tackles for loss and Weber tackled Tigers punter Justin Maynard in the end zone for a safety to cut the deficit to 21-5.
After Gahanna received the ball on the kickoff after the safety at its own 47, quarterback Will Thomas hit Major Brown for a touchdown on the next the play to make it 21-13 with 5 minutes, 20 seconds remaining.
The Lions didn't get the ball back until after Central sealed it with a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Demeatric Crenshaw with 29.5 seconds to go.
Through five weeks, Gahanna was third in computer points in Division I, Region 2 behind a pair of unbeaten teams in Reynoldsburg and Dublin Coffman.
The Lions made the Region 2 playoffs last year despite going 6-4 in the regular season.
The other five OCC-Ohio teams went a combined 16-9 in non-league play, meaning there still are plenty of computer points available during the remainder of the league schedule.
"We have a great linebacker core with me, Sam and Zajdi," Williams said. "We really lead the defense and it shows out there. All of us are great leaders.
"Reynoldsburg is a big game, one of the ones we need to get into the playoffs, and they're in our region."