A postgame speech after a 31-14 loss at Columbus Academy on Sept. 22 was a turning point in the season for the Whitehall-Yearling High School football team.
Coach Rod Lightfoot questioned his players' trust in their teammates and stressed a change was needed if they planned to reach their goals.
The Rams responded by winning their final five regular-season games to earn a share of the MSL-Ohio Division title and clinch a second consecutive postseason berth.
Whitehall tied Academy and London for first at 4-1, ahead of Grandview (2-3), Liberty Union (1-4) and Bexley (0-5). It was the Rams' first league title since 2014.
"We're pleased," Lightfoot said. "We started off 0-2 and if you would have told me nine weeks ago that we (would reach the playoffs), I would question everybody's sanity because we were struggling out of the gate. The week (after) the Academy game is when our kids responded to what they knew they had to do, pulling together in the greatest of all team sports."
The Rams earned the fourth seed for the Division II, Region 7 playoffs and lost at home to fifth-seeded New Albany 42-35 in the first round Nov. 3 to finish 7-4 overall. It was Whitehall's first home playoff game since 2003, when it defeated Youngstown Chaney 18-15 in the first round.
"I'm very happy with the season and making it back-to-back years in the playoffs," junior wide receiver/linebacker Keon Freeman said. "This is big motivation because we don't want to feel this pain again. We want to get past the first round next year. That will be the seniors' No. 1 goal."
Junior quarterback Raymell Byrd led the offense, rushing for 1,628 yards and 24 touchdowns on 227 carries and completing 70 of 153 passes for 1,131 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. He was named first-team all-district and all-league.
"Raymell is the heart and soul of our offense," Lightfoot said.
"Raymell has a keen sense of the game and his elusiveness serves him well in our zone-read offense. His calm demeanor and unquestioned leadership bring stability to not only our offense but our entire team as well."
Freeman also was first-team all-district and all-league. He led the Rams in tackles (130) and tied senior Kendall Nesbitt (OL/DL) for the lead in sacks (7).
"Keon's instincts as a linebacker and his notoriety as a big hitter have resulted in him being the anchor of our defense," Lightfoot said. "Keon's tremendous leadership on and off the field immensely enhanced our defense during the season."
Junior Rasheed Muhammad (RB/DB) rushed for 823 yards and four touchdowns and added 274 yards receiving and two scores. He was first-team all-league and second-team all-district.
Junior Ryan Redifer (OL/DL) also was first-team all-league and second-team all-district. Senior Assante Ndongo (OL/DL) was second-team all-league and special mention all-district. Senior Tyjaun Childers (OL/DL), Nesbitt and junior Isaiah Oney (RB/LB) were second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Seniors Kelvin Jacobs (WR/LB) and O.C. Wellman (WR/DB) and sophomore Christian Gordon (WR/DB) were honorable mention all-league.
"Our kids realized they had to play together. That's what this game is all about, overcoming adversity (and) persevering over any obstacle that gets in their way," Lightfoot said. "They realized that over the last half of the season."