Heading into week 8 of the regular season, the Gahanna Lincoln High School football team still had hopes of a Division I playoff berth despite a series of obstacles that began well before opening night.

Heading into week 8 of the regular season, the Gahanna Lincoln High School football team still had hopes of a Division I playoff berth despite a series of obstacles that began well before opening night.

The Lions began the season with new starters at every position on offense and at several key spots on defense, and they struggled with consistency in the kicking game all season.

Throw in the fact that coach Bruce Ward was away from practice for more than two weeks during the preseason and was suspended for the first two games because of a series of offseason incidents, and Gahanna could have been in a much worse spot than the 4-3 record it held entering its Oct. 14 game at Lancaster.

A 21-18 loss to the Golden Gales was the third of four games in which the Lions would lose by seven or fewer points, and the close losses ultimately were the final reason they came up short of a Region 3 playoff berth.

Gahanna, which beat Grove City 34-0 on Oct. 21 but closed the season with a 28-21 overtime loss Oct. 27 to Pickerington North that helped the Panthers earn a playoff spot, is hoping for a much smoother ride next year.

The Lions finished 5-5 overall and went 1-4 in the OCC-Ohio Division to place fourth behind Pickerington Central (5-0), Lancaster (4-1), Pickerington North (3-2) and Reynoldsburg (2-3) and ahead of Grove City (0-5).

"It wasn't an easy year (considering) the way we lost four games that we were leading in the fourth quarter, and (we lost) to teams who we haven't lost to (since I became coach in 2014) like Lancaster and Reynoldsburg," Ward said. "Coming into the season you talk about how young we were. For a lot of these guys it was their first opportunity to play."

The biggest positive heading into next season is that the Lions should return a much more experienced group in every area.

Sophomore Michael Lowery transferred from Pickerington North during the offseason and edged junior David Miller for the quarterback job as Miller moved to wide receiver.

Both players made first-team all-league. Lowery completed 188 of 308 passes for 2,350 yards with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions, and Miller had 47 catches for 612 yards.

Also eligible to return on offense are sophomore Riley Lutsko, who started at center, and junior David Huguely, who saw time on the line.

Sophomore Justus Harris rushed for four touchdowns and had an interception return for a score.

Junior Khalil Straughter, who scored two touchdowns in a 39-10 win over Westerville Central on Aug. 26, missed time with a concussion but is another potential playmaker eligible to return.

The rest of the receiving corps featured seniors Terone Gordon (35 catches, 496 yards), Dominique Turner (31 catches, 462 yards), Andrew Ray (28 catches, 279 yards) and Dominic Taylor (28 catches, 321 yards). Mohammed Amer, Sam Kruse, Bailey McCoy and Braden Neal were among the senior offensive linemen.

"(Next season will be) my senior year, so everything is even more crucial," Miller said. "I plan on getting my team focused and leading them. I feel like we'll have a great team and come out hungry because we don't want another season like this year."

Defensively, the Lions must replace a three-year starter at linebacker in Cael Baker, who had 12.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and made first-team all-league for the second year in a row. He will play baseball for the University of Cincinnati.

Also among the key seniors on defense were Dontae Deas (DB), Michael Harris (DL), McCoy (DL), Alex Metz (LB), Taylor Nisbet (LB), Jared Payton (DL) and Raheem Smith (DB).

Karter Johnson (DL) is a sophomore who again should lead the defense after finishing with 46 tackles and 10 sacks and making second-team all-league.

Baker made first-team all-district. Lowery and Miller were special mention all-district, and Gordon, Johnson and Turner were honorable mention.

Juniors Cameron Carlisle (DB) and Steve Young (LB) and sophomore LaCarr Trent (DB) are others eligible to return on defense.

"We definitely have some pieces coming back," Ward said. "As soon as (the season) is over, you're ready to get back on it. They're excited, and some of them are already back in the weight room."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek