Zebb Schroeder wasn't happy with how the season ended for the Olentangy Orange High School football team, but the fifth-year coach was pleased with the progression shown by his squad.
The Pioneers started 1-2 but regrouped to win a share of the OCC-Buckeye Division championship and earn their third consecutive Division I, Region 2 playoff appearance. That was enough to somewhat soothe the sting of a 20-17 loss at third-seeded Toledo Whitmer on Nov. 2 in the opening round of postseason play.
"With our injuries, (senior all-American) Zach (Harrison) being out and having a young varsity team that started slowly, if you had told me that we would win a conference championship and make the playoffs and play well against Whitmer, I would have taken that," said Schroeder, whose team finished 7-4 overall. "This team really jelled and the mantle of a good team is playing its best ball at the end of the season. We were able to do that, but it goes to show that you're never really satisfied."
The sixth-seeded Pioneers trailed Whitmer 7-0 at halftime but rallied for 14 fourth-quarter points to take a 17-13 lead on a 21-yard run by senior quarterback Robbie Dayhuff with 5 minutes, 55 seconds remaining. However, the Panthers scored on Kobe Myers' 1-yard run on fourth down with 1:57 to play.
Orange had its chances to score, especially late in the first half when Harrison caught a Dayhuff pass before being tackled at the Whitmer 4-yard line. The clock expired before the ball could be spiked.
"We needed to punch it in before halftime and weren't able to do that," Schroeder said. "Do you kick (a field goal) or do you go for it? We thought our best percentage was to pick up the first down and spike it. The clock might have started too quickly. That's something you can't check in high school. We weren't able to get that back, and it hurt us."
Dayhuff rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, and junior running back Jake Vanchieri added 111 yards on 23 carries as the Pioneers outgained Whitmer 316-311 in total yards.
Orange won its first league championship since 2011 by tying Liberty and Olentangy for the OCC-Buckeye title at 4-1.
Harrison missed the first three games with a leg injury, but made a big difference while helping the Pioneers close the regular season with six wins in seven games. He was the league's Defensive Player of the Year and was selected to play in the 19th All-American Bowl, which features the top 100 high school seniors in the country and will kick off at noon Jan. 5 in the Alamodome in San Antonio.
Harrison, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound defensive end, is rated by several college recruiting services as the state's top recruit in the 2019 class. He finished the season with 35.5 tackles, including 16 for loss, seven sacks and one pass break-up. At wide receiver, he had 21 catches for 381 yards and four touchdowns.
Dayhuff (first-team all-league) rushed for a team-high 829 yards and nine touchdowns on 150 carries. He also was 88-for-162 passing for 1,137 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Senior running back Mark Roberts (honorable mention all-league) suffered a knee injury in a 35-34 overtime loss to Olentangy on Oct. 5 and did not return. He rushed for 682 yards and seven touchdowns on 103 carries.
Ethan Adkins (DB; second-team all-league; 3 interceptions), Dom Davis (LB; second-team all-league), Ryan Duffy (OL; second-team all-league), Mason Faulkner (LB; first-team all-league), Mitchell Gifford (LB; special mention all-league), Brant Kightlinger (DL; first-team all-league), Kyle Sessamen (DL; first-team all-league) and Zach Stevenson (OL; first-team all-league) were other honorees from a 19-player senior class.
"First and foremost, we love this senior class to death," Schroeder said. "Not being around them and going to practice with them is the toughest pill to swallow. You're not spending time anymore with them and that's tough. Now it's the 2019 team."
Junior linebacker Zach Hill (first-team all-league) said the seniors helped show him how to be a leader.
"I got to play with them last year as a sophomore, and I learned about what kind of work ethic that it takes to be successful," Hill said. "I think I can take what I learned from them and keep what they started going and maybe even go a little further."
Vanchieri (second-team all-league) rushed for 766 yards and six touchdowns on 159 carries. Junior center Jeff Sullivan also was second-team all-league.
Other key performers expected to return are juniors Jack Fenton (RB), Spencer Hawkins (QB), Zane Lattig (WR; 25 catches, 301 yards, 2 TDs), Tanner Lester (OL), Connor Mathena (OL), Najib Talukder (OL) and Sam Wyne (TE) and sophomores Luke Applegate (RB), Caden Konzcak (WR) and Joey Guagenti (DB; 3 interceptions).