In a league featuring an assortment of strong football teams from three OHSAA divisions, one team had a recent history of always standing out ahead of the pack -- until last season.

In a league featuring an assortment of strong football teams from three OHSAA divisions, one team had a recent history of always standing out ahead of the pack -- until last season.

After winning its first 19 games in the MSL-Cardinal Division since joining the conference in 2006, West Jefferson finally succumbed to a league foe in week nine last season, as Harvest Prep topped the Roughriders 26-21.

West Jefferson finished 6-1 in league play to earn a share of the title with Liberty Union.

This season's schedule has the defending co-champions facing each other Oct. 30, in the final week of the regular season -- a game that could determine who will finish on top the league standings as both teams expect to have strong seasons.

West Jefferson beat Liberty Union 41-13 to open conference play last season and went on to reach a Division V, Region 20 semifinal before losing to Maria Stein Marion Local 21-14.

Liberty Union went on to capture the Division V, Region 19 championship before losing to Youngstown Ursuline 35-6 in a state semifinal. The Lions return 11 starters and have 18 seniors on their roster.

"We obviously played much stronger as the season went on," Liberty Union coach Dan Johnson said. "So by playing West Jefferson in the last game of the year, that could help us."

Liberty Union and West Jefferson aren't the only teams with a shot at the league title, however.

Licking Heights finished 7-3 overall, Harvest Prep showed it could play with the best teams in the region and historically strong Fisher Catholic is looking to rebound from a disappointing season with a new coach and a new offensive system. Grandview and Berne Union also lurk as a potential surprise teams.

"I think we'll see a bit of a repeat from last year in that Licking Heights and Harvest Prep will also be in the mix at the top with West Jeff and us," Johnson said. "Coach (Darren)Waters does a great job at Heights and they have talented athletes and growing numbers.

"Of course, Harvest Prep has Jack Johnson and everyone knows that he's a great, great coach. Every year we get at least one or two teams in the playoffs. This is a pretty good football league."

But, at least on the surface, it looks like all roads to the playoffs will lead through West Jefferson.

The Roughriders have won 30 of their last 32 regular-season games and again will have the services of first team all-state quarterback D.J. Mendenhall, who holds single-season school records in nearly every passing category.

West Jefferson will finish with a three-week stretch that includes games at Harvest Prep (Oct. 16), at home against Licking Heights (Oct. 23) and the Liberty Union contest.

Liberty Union also has a potential minefield to end regular-season play, with home games against Fisher Catholic (Oct. 16) and Harvest Prep (Oct. 23) before heading to West Jefferson.

Fisher Catholic gets its shot at West Jefferson Oct. 2 when the Roughriders travel to Fairfield County. Former Granville coach Mike Hensley is hoping he has enough time to restore Fisher's football program back to its former glory. Hensley took over the team Aug. 11, just two weeks after football coach and athletics director Mike McCann stepped down because budget cuts forced the school to eliminate the athletics director position.

Hensle spent 14 years at Granville and led it to the playoffs the last two seasons as well as in 2003. He refuses to discount any team in a league known for its parity and strong level of competition.

"There are some Division IV teams you have to compete with and some powerhouse Division VI teams," Hensley said of the league. "This is a good place to play."

Grandview features one of the league's top players in linebacker and fullback Clay Teach, but the Bobcats have a tall hill to climb to make it into the picture for a league title.

Berne Union finished 2-5 in the MSL-Cardinal under first-year coach Josh Wright and hope to build from that, but the Rockets can't afford a misstep against a field of talented teams.

"We've got to be ready to play every week because we're in a great small-school league," Wright said.

The Lakers haven't won a conference game since 2006 and have lost 18 in a row overall. They are hoping to turn things around under first-year coach Rob Wiseman. He is their fourth coach in four seasons.