As it tried to navigate through a schedule filled with playoff contenders, the Pickerington High School North football team managed to beat four teams that went on to qualify for the postseason.
That's the biggest positive from a season that ended with the Panthers settling for 10th in Division I, Region 3 - two spots shy of a playoff berth - to miss the postseason for the third time in five seasons as they finished 6-4 overall and went 2-3 in the OCC-Ohio Division.
Returning to the success North enjoyed a year ago when it was the regional runner-up might not be as far out of the question as one might believe even though the Panthers are losing 21 seniors.
With players such as junior wide receiver Chris Scott and sophomore standout athlete Jack Sawyer expected back, the Panthers could return to playoff form next fall.
"Our group next year will be special," Scott said. "We had a lot of juniors and a couple sophomores contribute to the team this year, so there will be a lot of experience next season, no doubt. If we keep working hard, build our chemistry up even more and come into next year with the right mindset of not having another season like we did this year, then I really think our future looks good here at North.
"It was very disappointing coming up short (of the playoffs) this year because we felt like we were a better team than what we showed, but our young guys understand that the offseason is key."
Three of North's losses came to playoff teams, including back-to-back setbacks to Dublin Coffman (31-28 on Sept. 21) and Reynoldsburg (33-31 on Sept. 28). The Panthers also lost to Central 16-7 on Oct. 12 and Lancaster 35-21 on Oct. 19, dimming their playoff hopes.
North closed the season Oct. 26 with a 14-10 win at Gahanna, a Division I, Region 2 playoff qualifier, but it wasn't enough to reach the postseason.
"It's one of those things where it's tough when you look at it that we'd be in the playoffs in every other region in Division I and that we beat four teams that are in playoffs," coach Nate Hillerich said.
Among North's biggest losses to graduation on offense will be senior quarterback Mike Lowery, who completed 196 of 308 passes for 2,359 yards with 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Scott had 52 receptions for 793 yards and 10 touchdowns and could end up working more substantially next season with Sawyer, who is a candidate to be the starting quarterback after serving as Lowery's backup.
Sawyer had 62 tackles, six sacks and 15 tackles for loss while playing on the defensive line.
Another skill-position player eligible to return is Mike Lowery's brother, sophomore wide receiver Jordan Lowery, who had 21 receptions for 247 yards and four touchdowns.
Sophomore Idris Lawrence was the team's second-leading rusher, finishing with 363 yards and three touchdowns on 77 carries.
Sophomores Zach Addie and D.J. Davenport figure to lead the offensive line next season.
Also expected to return on defense are juniors Colby Baker (DB), Trent Robinson (DL), Lawson Vaughn (LB) and Josiah Williams (DB). All four were among the team's top 10 in tacklers, with Vaughn also having 7.5 tackles for loss and Williams contributing an interception.
Junior Sincere Harvey was a linebacker and junior Dom Myers and sophomore Devin McShan were defensive backs who gained experience as well.
Other key seniors were Jaylon Baylor (WR), Tim Cheatwood (WR), Tyler Foster (TE), Ben Johnson (LB), Larry Martin (RB), Jimmy McBride (LB), Dante Reed (DL), Bobby Trim (DB) and Terrell West (DB).
Johnson missed nearly three games with injuries but still had 95 tackles and 15 tackles for loss. Reed (50 tackles, 19 tackles for loss) and McBride (43 tackles) also were among the team's defensive leaders.
Martin rushed for 415 yards and four touchdowns, Foster had 31 catches for 487 yards and five scores and Baylor had 42 receptions for 443 yards and four touchdowns.
Sophomore kicker Tanner Pope made three field goals and all 39 extra-point attempts, while Mike Lowery averaged 36.1 yards on 31 punts and Scott averaged 35.7 yards on 10 punts.
Baylor added 306 yards on 11 kickoff returns.
Johnson, Reed and Sawyer were named first-team all-league, Foster, Scott and Martin were second-team all-league, Josiah Williams was special mention and Mike Lowery was honorable mention.
Johnson and Foster have committed to Ohio University and senior two-way lineman Samuel Glover has committed to Navy.
"We had five sophomores start in games," Hillerich said. "I think we had a winning record at every level this year, which is good. We just put pictures up of current players playing in college, and we have 11 from last year's team that are playing college football this year. You lose 11 kids and still have high expectations."