As expected, the loss of about 900 students to newly opened Hilliard Bradley has taken a toll on the Hilliard Darby High School football team.
One year after the program had 178 athletes, including 100 varsity players, the Panthers now have 88 athletes and will carry only 50 players on their varsity squad.
Darby -- which finished 6-4 overall and 3-4 in the OCC-Central Division to finish fifth behind Upper Arlington (7-0) last year -- will open Friday against Toledo Libbey.
"It's unfortunate that more kids didn't want to play football, because we'd like to have about 80 players for our varsity team alone, since we're still a pretty good-sized school with about 1,500 students," second-year coach John Santagata said. "We don't have the depth that we had, and that's a problem because now we've got to have kids playing both ways. We don't like to do that, because we'd prefer to keep them fresh for the entire game. But the good news is the kids have worked so hard to get into great shape that I think we'll be fine."
Junior Matt Cyrus -- who started at running back last year and will start at both running back and strong safety this season -- said the players enjoy contributing on both offense and defense.
"We wish our team was bigger, but playing on Friday nights is what it's all about, and it's a lot of fun to be out there for almost every play," Cyrus said. "We go hard in practice every day, and that's been boosting our confidence so we can play at a high level for entire games."
After losing nine players who started on offense, the Panthers have switched from a shotgun spread offense to a more ground-based multiple-slotback attack.
"I felt it was important that we establish a stronger running game, while still having the ability to throw, and we think this offense is what's best for the players that we have," Santagata said.
Five players who started multiple games on offense have returned, including Cyrus (6-foot-1, 210 pounds), senior left tackle Evan Falardeau (6-4, 260), senior right tackle Tommy Smith (6-3, 230), senior tight end Marcus Ewald (6-4, 190) and junior center Sufyan El-Geroushi (6-2, 230).
Cyrus rushed for 532 yards and four touchdowns on 88 carries last year, and Ewald had seven catches for 130 yards and one touchdown.
Junior Matt Allen (5-11, 165) will start at quarterback, and seniors Nate Bucci (6-2, 205), Seth Fisher (5-10, 180) and Elijah Tavera (5-10, 165) will line up with Cyrus in four-slotback formations.
At receiver will be senior Trey Misolek (5-10, 160) and juniors Zack Hoyt (5-10, 160) and Tyler Ison (6-1, 165).
"We're not going to be as much of a finesse team, offensively," Cyrus said. "Now we're going to use a lot of misdirection and smash it in people's faces a lot more."
Three starters have returned to lead the 50 Shade defense, including Tavera at cornerback, Bucci at end and junior tackle Blake Clowes (6-2, 300).
Bucci had 31 tackles and 2.5 sacks, and Tavera had 22 tackles last year.
El-Geroushi and Falardeau will play tackle, and sophomore Tae Bardley (6-2, 245) and senior Haroon Quadri (5-10, 220) are vying for playing time on the line.
Rotating into the safety slots are Cyrus, Hoyt, Misolek and senior Matt Keller (6-2, 190). Allen, Tavera, senior Alex Day (5-9, 165) and sophomore Dante Talley (5-7, 150) round out the group of cornerbacks.
The top linebackers are seniors Dennis Coyne (5-11, 175), Eric Hajjar (6-0, 210) and Matt Keller (6-2, 190), and sophomore Jevaughan White (5-11, 180).
Senior punter Brad Stimson, who was second-team all-league last year, has returned.
Senior Adam Jenne, who made all three field-goal attempts and was 26-for-31 on extra-point attempts a year ago, and Alex Manifold (5-9, 150) are competing for the starting place-kicking role.
"We're going into our third year of having the same defensive and special teams systems, and I feel like we were all able to prepare better this season," Santagata said.
Darby put together the third winning season of its 13-year history in 2008, despite losing four games by 10 points or fewer.
The Panthers beat only one team that finished with a winning record, defeating Dublin Jerome 42-28.
But Darby suffered close losses to Worthington Kilbourne (28-21), Upper Arlington (24-14), Dublin Coffman (10-3) and Davidson (21-14). Those teams finished with a combined record of 33-7.
"The split with Bradley left a lot of doubters out there, but I think we're going to surprise a lot of people with how hard and how well we play," Cyrus said.