Two days after the fact, Hilliard Bradley High School football coach Mike LoParo was still stinging.
The third-seeded Jaguars lost to sixth-seeded Pickerington Central 14-13 in the opening round of the Division I, Region 3 playoffs Nov. 2 at home, and did so in heartbreaking fashion.
Bradley led for most of the game, but the defending state champion Tigers took a 14-13 lead in the fourth quarter when Jaguars senior running back Jack Richards was fighting for yardage, just like players are taught to do.
Richards fumbled on the Central 7-yard line and the Tigers' C.C. Gordon scooped up the ball and returned it 93 yards for the decisive touchdown with 9 minutes, 44 seconds left.
The Jaguars had other scoring opportunities after falling behind, but couldn't capitalize and finished 9-2 overall.
"It's a tough way to lose it. It's brutal," said LoParo, who completed his eighth season. "We're driving to go up two scores and just like that, we're down one (point). It's rough.
"No one deserves to lose that game. It was hard-hitting and just a lot of fun. We had other shots. We were in a position to win, but couldn't make critical plays when we needed them."
The Jaguars had an impressive season, winning their third consecutive league championship and earning their third playoff berth in a row. They have won 16 consecutive OCC-Cardinal Division games, going 7-0 this season, ahead of runner-up Darby (6-1).
"We had a great season, but I can't believe it ended like that," said LoParo, who was named league Coach of the Year. "We played well and got better and better and better throughout the season. We just came up short at the end."
Griffin Veil was the third quarterback to lead the Jaguars to a league championship in as many seasons. The senior shared league Offensive Player of the Year honors with Dublin Jerome offensive lineman Cam Craig, completing 172 of 267 passes for 2,541 yards with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions and rushing for 261 yards and three scores on 96 carries.
Senior linebacker Cannon Blauser shared league Defensive Player of the Year honors with Darby linebacker Noah Wile.
"The coaches taught me how to make reads as a linebacker and what it takes to play at the next level," said Blauser, an Ohio University commit. "They taught us how much time you have to give up in order to win, not only on the field but also in the classroom. You have to be a leader, self-motivated and self-disciplined in order to succeed."
Senior wide receiver Jack Duffer (first-team all-league) caught 49 passes for 1,122 yards and 14 touchdowns and senior wide receiver Trey Warner (second-team all-league) had 45 receptions for 654 yards and four scores. Richards led the team in rushing with 869 yards and 14 touchdowns on 190 carries.
Senior Zach Hummel, a University of Cincinnati commit, was first-team all-league at linebacker. As a receiver, he caught six passes for 77 yards and two scores, including a 15-yard touchdown pass from Veil in the loss to Central.
Senior offensive lineman Danny Vazquez was first-team all-league, senior defensive back Patrick Day (3 interceptions) was second-team all-league and senior defensive back Aaron Malarkey was honorable mention all-league.
"This was the winningest senior class we have ever had here," LoParo said. "They were an incredible group of kids that did a great job for us."
Junior defensive lineman Chris Mayfield was first-team all-league, junior offensive lineman Jacob Curl and junior defensive back Luke Erwin (2 interceptions) were second-team all-league and junior defensive back Zach Komlosi and junior defensive lineman Jacob Noble were special mention all-league.
Other key players expected to return include juniors Abe Ayers (OL), Nathan Ludaway (WR), David Metzler (OL), A.J. Mirgon (WR), Ethan Poff (WR), Caleb Walker (DB), Evan Yee (RB) and Dillon Ysseldyke (DL).
"The program is continuing to grow and has become a perennial power instead of it just being a year-by-year thing," LoParo said. "I'm just happy to be able to play at a championship level with different kids. We have been able to plug-and-play and still have success."