With 30 seniors among an 84-player roster, Pickerington High School North football coach Tom Phillips will have his largest group of 12th-graders to work with since taking over the program in 2007.

With 30 seniors among an 84-player roster, Pickerington High School North football coach Tom Phillips will have his largest group of 12th-graders to work with since taking over the program in 2007.

But the fact that the number of freshmen in the program nearly has doubled from the last two years is even more impressive to Phillips.

The bottom line is that the program, now in its seventh season, appears to be on the way up as it seeks its first Division I playoff berth.

"Most of these kids have been with me for three years now," said Phillips, whose team opens Friday at home against Dublin Scioto. "Our freshmen numbers are at 44, which means we've got kids playing football. Our team is on the rise at the younger levels."

After back-to-back 5-5 finishes in Phillips' first two seasons, North has significantly more experience -- and bulk -- than it did a year ago. Additions following the South-Western City School's 8.3-mill levy failure on Aug. 4 have been factors in both increases.

Matt Jordan, who coached Grove City to a 6-5 finish and a Division I playoff berth last year, has joined the coaching staff as an assistant and will help coach the offense.

Also coming from a Dawgs' team that beat North 12-7 in the regular-season finale last year are a trio of seniors who should contribute immediately -- Steven Crane (6-foot-5, 340 pounds), Chris Fuqua (6-4, 325) and Lucas Mason (5-11, 230).

Crane is expected to step in at right tackle for a line that includes four returning starters in senior Kyle Shaeffer (6-1, 225), sophomores Luke Carothers (6-2, 240) and Pat Elflein (6-2, 240) and junior Alex Huettel (6-4, 250).

The line will provide support for a group of experienced skill-position players led by senior quarterback Sean Flaherty (6-1, 190), senior running backs Matt Ferguson (5-10, 180), Gianni Lynch (6-0, 205) and Kevin Duckworth (5-10, 160) and senior tight end Alec Lamancusa (6-2, 225).

Seniors Eric Phillips (6-0, 165) and Chad Benson (6-2, 170) and junior Devin Lomax (5-10, 152) should be the top wide receivers in a spread formation that should mix the run and pass fairly evenly. Last year, Flaherty completed 107 of 181 passes for 1,151 yards with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Ferguson was the leading rusher a year ago with 363 yards and seven touchdowns. Duckworth added 340 yards and five touchdowns and Lynch had 251 yards and two touchdowns. Lynch rushed for 821 yards as a sophomore but battled injuries much of last year.

The biggest losses on offense were lineman Jairus Campbell and WR/TE Alex Bayer ( 50 catches for 630 yards), both of whom are playing at Bowling Green.

"We're expecting a lot this year," Lamancusa said. "We got a couple big guys from Grove City and got their coach. We're being handed an opportunity this year, and our expectations are very high. I think we'll do well. It's the third year (under coach Phillips) and by now everything is like second nature."

Defensively, the Panthers lost Campbell (10 sacks, 16.5 tackles for losses, first-team all-league), linebacker Amir Khezrdanamehr (39 solo tackles, 82.5 assisted, nine for losses), safeties Ryan Hunt (49 solo, 32 assisted) and Chris Johann (four interceptions) and cornerback Tim Smart (29 solo, 19 assisted) to graduation.

North again will sport a 50 defensive front, with senior linemen Jalen Campbell (6-1, 265), Lamancusa, Fuqua and Shaeffer expected to lead the way.

Lynch and senior Jude Jatau (6-1, 195) will be at inside linebacker, with Ferguson and senior Justin Ogden (5-10, 165) on the outside. Ferguson and Duckworth also will spend time at strong safety, with Eric Phillips and senior Justin Waugh (5-10, 155) at cornerback and junior Tony Traylor (6-0, 174) at free safety.

Flaherty was 22-for-22 in extra points last year, but junior Tyler Ebright is expected to be the kicker. Flaherty also averaged 33 yards per punt, and either he or junior Ryan Campbell will handle those duties.

North won a share of the OCC-Capital Division title two years ago.

But last year in their first season in the OCC-Ohio, the Panthers went 3-4 to tie Gahanna and Groveport for fourth behind Pickerington Central (7-0).

Two changes were made to North's schedule because of the South-Western City School's levy failure.

A non-league home game against Big Walnut on Oct. 30 replaces the league game against Grove City and Scioto replaces Central Crossing in the opener.

In addition to the close loss to Grove City last year, the Panthers fell in overtime to Gahanna and in two overtimes to Lancaster, both by a score of 31-28.

"We've got to move forward," coach Phillips said. "We want to win a championship. ... We have to turn those into wins. If we can win a conference championship, then you're talking playoffs."