The Thomas Worthington High School football team opened last season with a 27-20 double-overtime win over Canal Winchester as the Cardinals' Matt Zingery and the Indians' Josh Stratton made their coaching debuts for their respective squads.
The teams meet again in this year's opener on Friday, Aug. 24, at Thomas.
Thomas, which entered last season on a 17-game losing streak, won its first three contests a year ago but lost six of its final seven to finish 4-6. The Cardinals are seeking their first winning season since 1999.
After starting 2-2 last year, the Indians won four of their final six games in the regular season to qualify for the Division II, Region 7 playoffs, where they lost to top-seeded Walnut Ridge 27-14 in the first round.
"The opener last year was very exciting for us because it broke the losing streak and showed these kids that we were on the right path. Plus, it was a very exciting game," Zingery said. "But Canal has a lot of experience back this year and we're pretty young. I like what we have. It's just a matter of how quickly our young guys jell."
The Indians return eight starters on defense, led by linebackers Darren Davis and Tim Moore. Davis was first-team all-state last year after recording 144 tackles, five sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception.
"We've been looking forward to this (game) for a year now because it's the first time in my eight years as a head coach that we've blown a big lead like that," Stratton said. "We led 17-0 at halftime and basically just let it slip away."
On offense for the Indians, junior quarterback Jack Beeler returns after completing 126 of 221 passes for 1,410 yards with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. He has grown an inch and bulked up to 6-foot-1, 165 pounds.
"Jack had a great offseason and summer and is light years away from where he was last year at this time," Stratton said. "I was real happy with everyone in terms of the commitment they've made.
"The one thing we struggled with last year was learning how to practice. It took us all year and our best week of practice was leading into the playoffs. But we've picked that right up this year and that should make a difference."
Davis and freshman Stephan Byrd should figure prominently into the Indians' running game behind an experienced line anchored by three-year starter Wally Kalinowski and Dez Turkson, the team's lone two-way lineman.
"They have talent and depth and are one of the toughest teams on our schedule this year," Zingery said. "We barely beat them last year and I'm sure they have this one circled."
Although younger, the Cardinals return some proven athletes, including senior running back DiJahn Davis and senior quarterback Charlie Rhoades.
Last season, Davis rushed for 908 yards and six touchdowns and was honorable mention all-district, while Rhoades passed for 1,467 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Rhoades may share time behind center this season with sophomore Isaac Settles.
The Cardinals realize they may have to throw the ball more this year as defenses stack the box to stop Davis, but Thomas lost its top two receivers to graduation in first-team all-district honoree Khalil Jones and honorable mention all-district selection Cameron Ryan.
"DiJahn is pretty special and we're going to need him to have a special season, which means our offensive line needs to step up and be physical," Zingery said. "We've got a lot of youth on both sides of the ball. Our opponents will be keying on DiJahn and that could give us some opportunities to have success passing. We've got to be able to have some balance."
Defensively, Thomas returns linebacker Habib Bundu and linemen Austin Parsons and Alex Ritchie, and sophomores James Gaiters and Sheron Phipps were impressive in the secondary during the preseason, according to Zingery.