As it adjusts to having three new starters on its offensive line and a new quarterback, and without its top two receivers from a year ago, the Gahanna Lincoln High School football team must open the season by traveling two hours to compete in a stadium so well-known that it has a nickname.
The home field for Cincinnati Elder is known as "The Pit." The 10,000-seat stadium has been around since the 1930s and has a reputation for loud crowds.
On Friday, Aug. 24, the Lions will try to avenge a 27-23 loss from a year ago when they play an Elder team that went 6-4 last fall.
While the Panthers had a five-year run of postseason appearances snapped, Gahanna made the Division I, Region 2 playoffs and won a first-round game before falling in a semifinal to finish 7-5.
"They missed (the playoffs) last year, but they play all of those (teams) with 'St.' (in their names)," coach Bruce Ward said of Elder, which lost to playoff-qualifiers Lakewood St. Edward, Cleveland St. Ignatius and Cincinnati St. Xavier a season ago. "Elder is traditionally always a good team. I know they return a lot of their starters from last year. They have one of the best home atmospheres in Ohio. Everybody knows about 'The Pit.' With our inexperience, it's going to be a tough game for us to open up at 'The Pit.'"
In last year's matchup, 2018 graduate and quarterback Danny Nieman hit Luke Massminster for a 38-yard touchdown with 22 seconds remaining for Elder's winning points.
Massminster is a senior returnee at running back and linebacker who rushed for 520 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
Senior Michael Bittner split time at quarterback with Nieman. He completed 69 of 107 passes for 893 yards with seven touchdowns and also rushed for 466 yards and four scores.
Senior wide receiver Kyle Trischler had 66 receptions for 786 yards and four touchdowns, and senior wide receiver Zeno Perry added 15 catches for 137 yards and one score.
Leading the way up front is junior guard Jakob James, who already has scholarship offers from nine Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
Senior linebackers David Williams, C.J. Kiss and Zajdi Hoxha and senior cornerback LaCarr Trent are the top return-ees on defense for the Lions.
"Last year (Elder was a) two-quarterback system with one guy who was more of a thrower and one who was a running quarterback," Ward said. "They're physical up front on both sides of the ball. They like to pound the ball. Last year we had trouble stopping the run so it wasn't a good fit for us, but at the same time we could throw the ball around a little bit and it wasn't a good fit for them. They're big, physical and tough so it'll be a tough challenge for us."
Gahanna enters the season with a question mark at quarterback after two-year starter Mike Lowery transferred to Pickerington North for his senior season.
Junior Will Thomas and sophomore Trey Burger were competing for the position throughout the preseason.
One area that's not in doubt is who will carry the ball with the return of senior running back Justus Harris, who rushed for 1,019 yards and scored 19 touchdowns last season.
Junior linebacker Connor Keyes has returned to lead the Elder defense.
"Things have been going well," Harris said. "We have our linebackers back and our defense is pretty much the same. We've got a pretty young offense, but I think we're going to be fine."