Despite finishing with a losing record last season, the Berne Union High School football team just missed qualifying for the playoffs.

Despite finishing with a losing record last season, the Berne Union High School football team just missed qualifying for the playoffs.

The Rockets finished 10th in the Division VI, Region 23 computer standings with 7.7 points, just behind the last playoff qualifier, Zanesville Bishop Rosecrans (8.65 points) and No. 9 Danville (8.3 points).

They can point to a late three-week stretch of losses -- capped by a 13-9 setback to Grandview in week nine -- as the reason they didn't reach the postseason.

"We had our opportunities to win another game, to at least finish 5-5 and get into the playoffs," said coach Josh Wright, whose team was 4-6 overall and 2-5 in the MSL-Cardinal Division in his first season. "The Grandview game really hurt, and it's the one we really felt like we should have won. But now it's time to get after it again this season."

The Rockets return 26 letterwinners and eight starters on both sides of the football. Still, there will be changes.

Berne Union has moved up to Division V, Region 19. It has replaced Tuscarawas Central Catholic on its non-league schedule with Fredericktown.

"We open against Crooksville, which has been in the playoffs many times and was 6-4 last year," Wright said. "Then we have Fredericktown, which was 8-2 and just missed the playoffs. We play Nelsonville-York next, and they were 8-3 and lost to Liberty Union in the playoffs. So our non-league schedule is very challenging.

"We then open league play against West Jefferson, which was a regional runner-up. We've got to be ready to play every week because we're in a great small-school league. Liberty Union was our regional champion, Licking Heights is solid and has been to the playoffs lately and Harvest Prep was the first team to beat West Jeff since they joined the league (in 2006)."

The Rockets plan to use their experience and deep pool of linemen to help navigate through the difficult schedule.

Seniors Cullen Ashley (6-foot, 275 pounds), Riley Burke (5-10, 240), Seth Miller (6-0, 230) and Joe Westerman (6-1, 235) return as two-way starters on the line. On offense, Ashley is a center, with Westerman and Miller at tackles. Burke is a guard who will be paired with either Brice Foster or Connor Piper, both juniors.

"It's great to have most of the offensive line returning because we can grow together," said Ashley, who will be a third-year starter. "We had some great moments last year, but also some rough ones. So we're going to build on that and be leaders."

The Rockets who run a spread offense in a four-receiver set with one running back, must replace quarterback Nick Adams and running back Colton Speelman.

"Nick Adams was a tailback playing quarterback for us last year," Wright said. "He was a regional qualifier in track and he brought a dimension to the offense that will be difficult to replace. Colton Speelman was a physical runner who initiated contact."

Vying to take over at quarterback are senior Zach Rathbone and junior Brock Shull. Competing at running back are seniors Curtis Moore and Austin Hurst and junior Seth Lavey.

"The quarterbacks have similar skill sets. They can throw well, and they run hard," Wright said. "We're in no hurry to name a starter.

"Our running backs have different styles. Moore is a physical runner more like Speelman. Lavey isn't a scatback, but more of a slasher who has a chance of having a nice season."

Wright expects senior Chase Wright to be a difference-maker at receiver, a position where five players will see action. The others are juniors Zach Drake, Marcus Gilmore, Jack Ringhiser and Lucas Tate.

"(The line) is a cohesive group, and that will be important to our success," Miller said. "As for the skill players, Chase Wright has started since he was a sophomore and we have confidence that our running backs and quarterbacks will step up and be leaders to replace Colton and Nick. But I am hoping we throw the ball a little more this year."

Berne Union will line up in a 50-shade defense that Wright says often resembles a 4-4. Ashley and Burke will be the tackles, with Miller and Westerman seeing time at nose tackle. Foster also will rotate at both positions.

"We're not two-platoon, but we will be limiting snaps and giving our linemen a series off here and there," coach Wright said. "We've got that luxury. Those six offensive linemen will be in a rotation for the three spots on defense."

At ends will be senior Clayton Leach and Piper. Moore and Nick Lowe return as linebackers and will be joined by Derek Tipple. Shull and Gilmore will play cornerbacks, with Wright at strong safety and Rathbone at free safety.

"We are a read defense and I think we should be pretty set with the guys we have returning," coach Wright said. "We'll read and react, and if we run to the ball like we should, we'll be in good shape."