Coach Josh Stratton's first season with the Canal Winchester High School football team ended sooner than he wanted, but the coach is confident that the program's foundation will support deeper playoff runs in the near future.
Making their first playoff appearance since 2012, the eighth-seeded Indians lost 27-14 at top-seeded Walnut Ridge in the first round of the Division II, Region 7 playoffs Nov. 3.
Canal Winchester, which went 6-34 from 2013-16, finished 6-5 overall and 3-2 in the OCC-Capital Division.
"I feel really good about the kids coming back," Stratton said, citing not only a varsity lineup that featured underclassmen in several key positions but also a junior varsity team that went 8-2. "We have a great freshman class, a very talented class, arguably one of the best classes to ever come through the school. We're very excited."
Still, that did not entirely erase the sting of a game in which the Indians traded big plays with the Scots in the first half and shut down their offense in the second.
Three plays after Walnut Ridge took a 7-0 lead, junior wide receiver Jake Howard took a short pass from sophomore quarterback Jack Beeler and raced 55 yards down the center of the field for the game-tying touchdown.
Sophomore running back Dominic Davis scored from a yard out to tie the game at 14 in the second quarter, set up by senior running back Tanner Conley's 50-yard run to the Scots' 2.
Walnut Ridge took the lead for good on its next possession, when Isaiah Murphy threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Julian Wood, and ended Canal Winchester's first drive of the second half when Julius Stringer returned an interception 19 yards for a touchdown.
The Indians drove to the Scots' 16- and 5-yard lines in the second half but came away with no points.
"Our red-zone efficiency was not very efficient. That's something we struggled with all year (and) although we got better at it later in the year, (on Nov. 3) it reared its ugly head again. We just didn't finish," Stratton said. "Our defense really responded in the second half. Their only score was that pick-six. Our guys stepped up and met the challenge. We just didn't do enough offensively.
"We gobbled up tons of yards, but we have to get better at finishing. We have to get the ball into the end zone. That's the point of emphasis for our coaching staff and our players, but we feel good about the foundation we have."
After a 27-20 double-overtime loss to Thomas Worthington in their season opener Aug. 25, the Indians won four of their next six games. Canal Winchester defeated Athens 27-12 on Sept. 1 and Teays Valley 33-7 on Sept. 8, lost to Westerville North 47-21 on Sept. 15 but bounced back with a 24-14 win over Westland on Sept. 21.
In OCC-Capital play, the Indians defeated Groveport (24-7 on Oct. 6), Newark (47-7 on Oct. 20) and Big Walnut (38-6 on Oct. 27) and lost to New Albany (23-3 on Sept. 29) and Franklin Heights (20-19 on Oct. 13).
The win over Big Walnut clinched the Indians' playoff spot and spoiled the Golden Eagles' hopes for an undefeated league championship.
Canal Winchester tied Franklin Heights for third in the OCC-Capital behind co-champions Big Walnut and New Albany (4-1) and ahead of Newark (1-4) and Groveport (0-5).
The Indians earned the final playoff berth in Region 7.
Beeler completed 126 of 221 passes for 1,410 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
Conley led the running game with 809 yards and four touchdowns on 148 carries. Sophomore Tyler Toledo, who also played defensive back, added 374 yards and five touchdowns on 76 carries.
Senior wide receiver Stanton Smith caught 41 passes for 374 yards and two touchdowns.
Junior linebacker Darren Davis led Canal Winchester in tackles during the regular season with 126. Senior defensive lineman Angelo Hubbard had 108 tackles and a team-high nine sacks.
Hubbard and classmates Matt Kamer (LB), Connor Marshall (OL) and Trevor Thompson (K) were named first-team all-league. Beeler, seniors Drake Burris (P) and Haden Hiser (DB) and juniors Dez Turkson (OL/DL) and Davon Wilson (DB) made second-team all-league, senior Nick Kulin (OL) was special mention all-league and junior Jared Bulluck (DL) was honorable mention all-league.
Although Smith, who began the year at quarterback after missing most of last season in that role, is one of 21 seniors, he is proud to have helped pave the way for what he hopes is a continued run of success.
"To go from 1-9, 2-8 and 3-7 to this, it's amazing," Smith said before the Walnut Ridge game. "All throughout the summer, Stratton was working our butts off. We were determined to change the culture of this program. It wasn't easy. It was hard, but I think things are going in a different direction now."