Rick Rios vividly recalls his first game last season as Westland's new football coach.
The Cougars dropped a 34-32 decision to visiting Licking Heights and went on to lose their first three games on their way to a 1-9 finish.
Rios hopes his team can begin a turnaround when it opens Friday, Aug. 30, at Licking Heights.
"We've had game one circled," he said. "A year ago you're not quite sure what to expect Week 1 because the first time they turn the lights on you're just finding out a little bit about yourself and how your kids are going to react to game-time pressure. I think we've made strides over this past year and we're looking forward to seeing what that looks like on the field."
The Hornets, who went on to finish 6-4 last season, are under new leadership. Longtime assistant coach Kele Waaland has replaced Darren Waters, who stepped down after 14 seasons to become the outside linebackers coach at Otterbein.
Under Waters, Licking Heights went 100-49 with five playoff appearances and four league titles.
"We're excited to get things rolling," Waaland said. "It's been a little different with the regime change. The kids have done an excellent job adjusting to that and we're really excited for Week 1."
Both teams were hit hard by graduation, with a big loss for Westland being quarterback DeShawn Evans, who passed for 1,851 yards with 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season. He was first-team all-OCC-Central Division and second-team all-district in Division I.
Senior Buddy Workman, who took over as a sophomore when Evans was lost for the season after suffering a right-ankle injury in Week 4, again is playing quarterback. Workman passed for 1,143 yards with five touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 2017.
Key threats in the backfield are seniors Peterson Iresne and Johnny Douglas. Iresne rushed for 626 yards and six touchdowns and was special mention all-league a season ago.
A key receiver is senior Robert Clark, who had 59 receptions for 581 yards and four touchdowns and was special mention all-district and honorable mention all-league.
The defense includes seniors Aboubakare Dabo and Nick Spires on the line and Douglas and sophomore Jacob Hurley at linebacker.
"Westland always has great athletes," said Waaland, whose team is 4-0 against the Cougars over the past four seasons. "They always have some kids out there that can fun fast, they make big plays and they're always real dangerous. Defensively, they're usually pretty big up front, so that's going to be a big challenge for us trying to move those guys around a little bit."
For Licking Heights, senior Markeece Brown and junior Noah Coultas competed in the preseason to replace 2019 graduate Jacob Righter at quarterback. Last season, Righter completed 100 of 176 passes for 1,129 yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 708 yards and nine scores on 119 carries.
"I've gotten a chance to go out and see them a little bit, so I know what's coming," Rios said. "They're replacing their quarterback. They're looking to throw the football a little bit like last year, but they're definitely big up front and we know their game plan is going to be to pound it at us."
Senior Reid Holskey, a Miami University commit, should be a key contributor on the offensive and defensive lines for the Hornets.
Boys soccer team seeks improvement
The boys soccer team is looking to improve on last season's finish of 5-11-1 overall and 1-4 in the OCC-Central.
"If everything worked out well, we could be .500," fourth-year coach Jamie Dato said. "It's not a lofty goal, but it's our goal to get to .500 with a young team."
Westland opened Aug. 22 against Gahanna and begins OCC-Central play Sept. 10 against Marysville.
The top returnee is senior midfielder Bawi Lian, who had 10 goals and one assist last season and was special mention all-league.
Goalkeeper Trent Beach had 73 saves and midfielder Van Uk had four goals and two assists. Both are seniors.
Also back are seniors TeiTu Bawi (defender), Junior Garcia (defender), Abraham Perez (midfielder) and Manny Rojas (defender) and junior Ulises Martinez (midfielder).
Other players are seniors Eddie Carlton (midfielder), Eric Martinez (defender), Ahmed Mohamed (defender) and Ricardo Santiago (defender), juniors Jayden Bruna (forward), Gerardo Guzman (midfielder), Ethan Masanja (midfielder) and Khalil Suleiman (midfielder) and sophomores Jeremy Canchola (forward), Noah Fryman (midfielder), Bryan Garcia (defender) and Pato Rebollar (forward).
"We're very young," Dato said. "I have four sophomores on varsity. We have (12) guys on varsity who didn't play varsity last year and they're getting used to the speed of the game. We have a lot to work on. As long as we're playing our best soccer by the end of the year, whatever we do at the beginning of the year doesn't matter."
Westland's league win last season came against Central Crossing, with the 3-1 decision improving the Cougars to 3-0 against the Comets under Dato. The teams meet Oct. 10 at Westland.
Girls soccer team has new coach
First-year girls soccer coach Nick Courtright is looking to change the fortunes of the program.
Courtright replaces Mike Schwarten, who stepped down after two seasons. The Cougars went 3-30-1 under Schwarten, including 1-15-1 overall and 0-5 in the OCC-Central last season.
Courtright is the team's fourth coach in five years.
"I'm really excited with their progress," he said. "Their attitudes have been fantastic when we're challenging them, when we're trying to push them and trying to get them in a little better shape. The kids are willing and they seem to be a very good group so far, which is great."
Westland opened Aug. 22 against Whetstone and begins league play Sept. 10 at Marysville.
Sophomore midfielder/forward Bella Garner was second-team all-league last season.
Also back are senior Laura Ornelas-Rodriguez (midfielder), juniors Heaven Manbevers (midfielder/forward) and Isis Ventura Pablo (defender) and sophomores Alex Carlton (defender), Cat Gesling (defender) and Becky Paul (goalie/defender).
Others looking to contribute are senior Allison Vasquez (defender/midfielder), juniors Denise Cruz (defender), Ingrid Jimenez (defender/forward) and Jennifer Rodas (forward), sophomore Madeline McGaffee (defender) and freshmen Hannah Bruno (midfielder/forward), Mya Moxley (forward), Reagan Schumacher (defender/midfielder/forward) and Cynthia Stevens (goalie/midfielder).
"As the summer conditioning went on and the season approached, the kids did a good job of buying into the mindset of wanting to be here," Courtright said.
"They understand we're going to have to come out here and sweat a little bit and we're going to have to go through some drills that may not be the most fun, but if we learn and get something out of it in the end it's going to help them out."
A 1994 graduate of Westland, Courtright played soccer as a freshman and sophomore and tennis all four years for the Cougars. He previously was a boys assistant coach at West Jefferson and London.
Below are the coming schedules for the Westland cross country, boys golf, boys soccer, girls soccer, girls tennis and girls volleyball teams:
Aug. 28 -- Canal Winchester Invitational
Aug. 27 -- Ready at Hickory Hills
Aug. 28 -- OCC-Central at Apple Valley
Aug. 27 -- Home vs. Canal Winchester
Aug. 29 -- At Northland
Aug. 27 -- At Canal Winchester
Aug. 29 -- Home vs. Galion
Aug. 31 -- At Whitehall
*Aug. 27 -- At Dublin Coffman
*Aug. 29 -- Home vs. Upper Arlington
Aug. 27 -- Home vs. Canal Winchester
Aug. 29 -- Home vs. Grove City
Aug. 31 -- At Grandview