When Davionn Johnson signed in February 2017 to play football for Notre Dame College in South Euclid, he recognized the Division II program's upward trend.

What the 2017 St. Charles Preparatory School graduate experienced with the Falcons this fall, however, went beyond his expectations.

Johnson was one of 16 central Ohio players on the roster for Notre Dame, whose greatest season in its 10-year history ended Dec. 8 with a 30-24 loss at Valdosta State in a semifinal of the NCAA playoffs.

"When I was coming out of high school, during my recruiting process they made it very clear that they wanted me," said Johnson, a starting safety for the Falcons. "They treated me like I was already a part of the family, showing me a good time, and another thing was that I wanted to win. They were 9-2 (in 2016), so the team was on the rise, and that was huge for me.

"It's been unreal. I wouldn't say I'm surprised. Once I reported for camp and saw the camaraderie we had and the experience, I knew we could do something special. I'm not going to lie and say we'd be in the final four, but we had a different type of mentality coming in."

Notre Dame went 8-3 in 2017 before finishing 13-1 and winning the Mountain East Conference championship this fall.

Making their first playoff appearance, the Falcons opened the postseason with a 19-14 home win over Hillsdale in the second round Nov. 24 and then beat Slippery Rock 21-17 in a quarterfinal Dec. 1 at home.

Notre Dame was seeded fourth for the semifinals and made the trip to Valdosta, Georgia, to face the top-seeded Blazers.

Falcons kicker and punter Tanner Harding, a Gahanna graduate, had a punt blocked early in the first quarter that he knocked out of the back of the end zone for a safety, which gave Valdosta State a 9-0 lead.

The Falcons rallied to take a 10-9 lead into halftime after Harding made a 39-yard field goal on the final play of the second quarter, but Valdosta State scored three third-quarter touchdowns to open a 30-17 lead. Notre Dame scored with 2 minutes, 20 seconds remaining to pull within six points, but the Blazers ran out the clock to advance to the national championship game against Ferris State on Dec. 15, which they won 49-47.

"It's been great to be a part of the first team to win a conference (title), and to win (in the playoffs was) awesome," Harding said. "Just throughout the recruiting process, I felt like the coaches kind of made it more of a family aspect and truly showed that they cared about us."

Harding was one of three former Gahanna players on the team, along with Ron Robinson, who served as Harding's holder on field-goal and extra-point attempts, and running back Vasean Davis.

Harding made nine of 16 field-goal attempts this season, with four of his misses coming from 40 yards or beyond, and had six touchbacks on kickoffs. He also placed 16 of his 72 punts inside the 20.

Despite having just one carry for 6 yards against Valdosta State, Davis was the Falcons' second-leading rusher with 469 yards and six touchdowns on 71 carries.

Grove City graduate Austin Treneff was Notre Dame's center, and Franklin Heights graduate Dylan Akers served as backup quarterback, completing 12 of 19 passes for 128 yards and one touchdown.

New Albany graduate Jalen Ward played 10 games at defensive back.

Johnson was among four Falcons to make six tackles against Valdosta State and finished with 63 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and three pass breakups.

"(Notre Dame is) actually really small," Johnson said. "Everybody knows everybody and there are really small class sizes, which for me is really nice. Central Ohio definitely has a nice presence."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek