The Upper Arlington High School football team's expected returnees won't have to wrack their brains figuring out a motto to guide them through offseason work and, potentially, the 2017 season.

The Upper Arlington High School football team's expected returnees won't have to wrack their brains figuring out a motto to guide them through offseason work and, potentially, the 2017 season.

"Unfinished business," coach Joel Cutler said. "That's probably going to be the theme for the offseason. We did our best to take care of the business that we could. Our schedule was out of our control, but we must improve upon 8-2. The expectation here is (making) the playoffs, every single season, and we did not get that done."

Despite their best regular season since 2011, the Golden Bears fell one spot short -- and less than one computer point -- of making the Division I, Region 3 playoffs. A 27-21 loss at Dublin Coffman on Oct. 28, in which the Bears squandered a three-touchdown lead, dropped them from seventh to ninth in the region as the top eight make the playoffs.

UA finished with 20.5 points, .7211 of a point behind eighth-place Lancaster.

The Bears won eight games for the second consecutive season, but last year's team went 1-1 in the playoffs. UA had not recorded eight regular-season victories since 2011, when it finished 9-3.

Ultimately, a schedule that included six opponents with three wins or fewer helped keep UA out of the playoffs. Wins over Westerville Central (24-20 on Sept. 2), which won four games and fell just short of a playoff berth in Division I, Region 2, and Pickerington Central (35-29 in overtime on Sept. 23), which ended up as the third seed in Region 3, provided the Bears enough second-level points, coupled with their own wins, to keep them in the top eight in the region until the loss to Coffman.

"That (game against Pickerington Central) was absolutely the highlight of the year," Cutler said. "We got off to a great start. The Westerville Central comeback (14 fourth-quarter points for UA) was impressive. Going 6-0 to start the season the way we did, those are the things that stand out."

UA's other wins came against St. Charles (26-14 on Aug. 26), Westerville North (34-7 on Sept. 9) and Westerville South (27-0 on Sept. 16).

Senior running back E.J. Caldwell had a breakout year, leading the Bears in rushing (1,312 yards and 21 touchdowns on 149 carries) as well as in receiving yards (17 catches for a team-high 327 yards and 2 touchdowns). Caldwell shared OCC-Central Division Offensive Player of the Year honors with Hilliard Davidson running back Ryan Royer.

"I'm proud of his team-first mentality," Cutler said. "For a two-year starter at safety to move over (to offense) and do those things because we as a team needed him to, it was unselfish and impressive."

UA went 3-2 in the OCC-Central to finish third, behind Davidson (5-0) and Coffman (4-1) and ahead of Marysville (2-3), Central Crossing (1-4) and Westland (0-5).

The Bears defeated every team behind them in the standings, beating Westland 56-0 on Sept. 30, Marysville 42-21 on Oct. 14 and Central Crossing 49-17 on Oct. 21. But UA went 1-2 against teams with winning records, edging Pickerington Central but losing to Davidson (24-7 on Oct. 9) and Coffman.

Senior quarterback Riley Cooper completed 101 of 165 passes for 1,146 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. Senior Michael Smith caught a team-high 32 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns, which tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with junior tight end Will Robbins (8 catches, 155 yards).

Junior linebacker Dante Landolfi led the defense with 106 total tackles, including 56 solo and two sacks, and senior linebacker Mason Myers was second with 74. Junior defensive lineman Nick Cipriano had a team-high five sacks.

Smith and senior defensive back Jack Feller each had two interceptions.

Senior offensive lineman Ben Furash, Landolfi and Smith were named first-team all-league. Myers, senior lineman Nathan Orlandini, senior kicker Jack Schoedinger, junior wide receiver and defensive back Dylan Lewis and junior lineman Jack Stephens were second-team all-league, Robbins made special mention all-league and Cipriano was honorable mention all-league.

UA's 2017 schedule features the same opponents as this year's and in the same order, albeit with sites reversed for every game except St. Charles. The Bears will play host to the Cardinals in the season opener for the second consecutive year, after this year's game was moved to UA because of stadium construction at St. Charles.

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave