Since Bruce Ward took over as coach in 2014, the Gahanna Lincoln High School football team has gone 31-24 with four playoff appearance in five seasons.

That the Lions made it to the postseason for the second consecutive season this fall after having five players who likely would have been key contributors transfer during the offseason could be considered an accomplishment in itself.

That doesn't necessarily mean Gahanna heads into the offseason feeling satisfied.

"We've got to become better as a program," Ward told his players after the fifth-seeded Lions lost 14-7 at fourth-seeded Olentangy Liberty in the first round of the Division I, Region 2 playoffs Nov. 2 to finish 5-6.

"Our guys fought all year. A lot of guys counted us out in June, and even before we put on pads, they counted us out. (Making the playoffs) was something to build on."

Gahanna made the postseason despite a .500 regular-season record, posting key wins over playoff qualifiers Westerville Central (14-13 on Sept. 21) and Reynoldsburg (10-7 on Oct. 5) as well as New Albany (41-40 in two overtimes Sept. 14), which went 7-3 and just missed the Division II, Region 7 postseason.

The Lions lost to Liberty 17-14 in a regional semifinal last year and fell short again in the rematch.

The teams were tied at 7 at halftime, but the Patriots forced a turnover that set up the game-winning touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.

Gahanna then moved deep into Liberty territory, but junior quarterback Will Thomas was stopped short on fourth-and-1 from the Patriots 24 with 2 minutes, 25 seconds remaining.

"We had some opportunities," Ward said. "We squandered some things away, and that's the nature of football. You get it to fourth-and-1, and we've got to be able to get a first down. They made a play that stopped us."

Excluding their 62-0 win over winless Grove City on Oct. 19, the Lions averaged just 15.1 points.

Against Liberty, Thomas rushed seven times for 69 yards and completed 17 of 24 passes for 150 yards with an 8-yard touchdown pass to senior C.J. Kiss. According to Ward, it was one of Thomas' best games of the season.

After entering the season with no varsity experience, Thomas finished 98-for-178 passing for 1,050 yards with eight touchdowns and rushed for 339 yards and four scores.

Two other key skill-position players expected to return are junior running back Travis Whittaker, who rushed for 262 yards and three touchdowns, and junior wide receiver Cam Morris, who had 13 receptions for 232 yards and three scores.

Junior A'che Sanchez-Baccus anchored an offensive line that also should return junior Luke Baker and sophomores Tommy Bailey and Mykohl Martin.

"(Thomas) steadily got better as the year went on," Ward said. "He's played well and stepped up to the challenge."

The biggest losses offensively will be Kiss (TE) and seniors Justus Harris (RB), Major Brown (WR), Riley Lutsko (OL) and Josh Orkis (OL).

Harris finished with 1,055 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns and was the team's leading receiver with 29 receptions. Kiss had 17 receptions for 149 yards and two scores, and Brown added 16 catches for 171 yards and one touchdown.

Defensively, the Lions were led by seniors David Williams (LB), Zajdi Hoxha (LB), Sam Young (LB) and Jayden Hill (S).

Williams totaled 136 tackles, Young had 96 tackles and Hill had 11 pass breakups.

Top returnees on defense should include Martin, Sanchez-Baccus and junior Qwyn Williams on the line and Whittaker and junior Mason Weber at linebacker.

Against Liberty, Martin had three tackles for loss and 6.5 tackles.

Whittaker finished with 40 tackles, while Weber was among the team's top defenders for the first eight games before suffering with a season-ending injury.

Gahanna also will need to replace its kicker after senior Tyler Koss made 19 extra points and two field goals, but junior Kobie Stillwell could be a candidate for the position.

Stillwell split punting duties with senior Dylan Kankiewicz in addition to seeing time at wide receiver.

"I feel like there were a lot of good things about this year," Williams said. "We never quit, and a lot of people counted us out in June when a couple of our big players left. We just kept with it, practiced hard and never quit. In the New Albany game, we were down by 21 points. We were never really out of any game except for (a 31-0 loss Aug. 24 at Cincinnati) Elder."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek