Things took a turn for the worse for the Hilliard Darby High School football team on the opening kickoff of its Division I, Region 3 first-round playoff game Nov. 2 at second-seeded Clayton Northmont.
Senior two-way starter Jaden Jones sprained an ankle during the kickoff return and was unable to play the rest of the game, and the seventh-seeded Panthers went on to lose 42-20 to finish 8-3 overall.
"We had to shuffle the secondary before (Northmont) even had an offensive play and they have a big-strike offense with speedy receivers," coach John Santagata said. "We lost our other expected starting corner (Jaeln Benjamin) with an injury about midseason, so we moved Kris Day from free safety to cornerback to replace (Jones) and brought Nick Ferko in at free safety. That forced Nick to play both ways the entire game because he's been a starting receiver the past three or four weeks.
"(The injury to Jones) wasn't a good omen, but I thought we played very well for most of the first half. But we got beat on a few deep passes in the second half."
Darby opened the scoring, capitalizing on a fumble recovery by Hayden Vroom on the Northmont 1-yard line. The score was tied at 14 late in the first half, but a 13-yard punt gave the Thunderbolts good field position and they scored with 40 seconds left in the half to take a 21-14 lead into halftime.
It was the first of three consecutive scoring drives by Northmont, which led 35-14 entering the fourth quarter.
"We had a blown assignment on a (53-yard) touchdown run in the first half and let (Northmont receivers) get behind us twice in the second half and those big plays really hurt," Santagata said. "We knew we couldn't give them big plays, but they hit a couple on us."
The first was a 60-yard pass play that set up a 5-yard touchdown pass and the second was a 64-yard scoring pass.
Darby split its first four games, losing to Davidson 14-0 on Aug. 31 and Bradley 16-8 in its OCC-Cardinal Division opener Sept. 14, before closing the regular season on a six-game winning streak.
The Panthers finished 6-1 in the league to place second to Bradley (7-0).
"From the moment we lost to Bradley, we knew to have any chance of winning the league title or qualifying for the playoffs, we would have to win out," Santagata said. "The kids stayed tough and battled hard. We won out, but nobody beat Bradley, so we didn't share the league championship.
"I'd say we didn't hit our stride or find our identity until the second half of the (Olentangy) Berlin game (a 24-21 win on Sept. 28) when we had to rally (from a 21-7 halftime deficit)."
The Panthers are losing 18 seniors, including Jones (RB/DB), Vroom (WR/DB), Benjamin (RB/DB), Day (RB/DB), Ferko (WR/DB), Michael Cornathan (OL/DL), Charlie Freewalt (OL/DL), Grant Hollinger (RB/DL), Carter Holt (DL), Jacob Mowell (K), Seth Schmidt (OL/DL) and Nick Wile (LB).
Wile led the team with 126 tackles and tied for the team lead with 7.5 tackles for loss. He was named first-team all-league, along with Jones, Schmidt and Vroom. Cornathan, Day and Hollinger made second team and Freewalt was honorable mention.
"I love these seniors," Santagata said. "They are great kids and they've been fun to work with. I think we'll be hit hardest in the secondary because they're all seniors. On offense, we'll have all of the backfield returning, a tight end and some receivers, but we are losing three offensive linemen."
Among the expected key returnees are juniors Alex Briggs (LB), Evan Grose (RB), Creed Galko (TE), Scott Hartline (OL/DL), Ryan Morbitzer (WR/DB), Geno Sekura (LB) and Jack Stultz (QB) and sophomores Blayne Barnes (DL), Connor Jones (RB) and Eric Williams (DB).
Connor Jones rushed for 1,344 yards and nine touchdowns on 225 carries, including 169 yards on 34 carries against Northmont, and was first-team all-league.
Hartline was second-team league and Briggs and Sekura were special mention honorees. Briggs had 95 tackles, including seven for loss, and Sekura had 74 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss to tie Wile for the team lead.
"I think it took too long for us to find our identity, and that's something we want to achieve in camp next fall," Santagata said. "We have a lot of guys with experience coming back, so it's a matter of how much work they put in during the offseason."