Big Walnut entered the preseason with a craving for change.
The Golden Eagles haven't produced a winning season since 2014, when they went 7-3. Although, two years ago when they finished 4-6 overall, they went 4-1 in the OCC-Capital Division to win their first league championship since 2011.
"They've got a chip on their shoulder, they're hungry, they're driven, and the kids care about each other," said 11th-year coach Joe Weaver, whose team opens Aug. 30 at Johnstown.
Last season, Big Walnut finished 3-7 overall and 2-3 in the OCC-Capital, placing fourth behind champion Canal Winchester (5-0).
Despite his team's record, Weaver said last year's 22 seniors helped establish a "culture of commitment" within the program.
"We had a great senior class last year that really laid that foundation of unity within the team," Weaver said. "This group has taken that and carried it forward and taken it another step. All throughout, (grades) nine through 12, we are a unified program. Every one of them is a major piece to what we're doing, and it's a fun thing to be around. The kids take pride in that."
The Golden Eagles, who return seven starters on offense and eight on defense, hope that attitude translates into more victories this fall.
Among the returning starters is junior quarterback Jagger Barnett, who completed 108 of 169 passes for 1,652 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions and was named second-team all-district as a first-year starter last season.
"The big thing about Jagger is he's not a sophomore, he's a junior, and with that not only comes the experience but also the maturity and work-ethic pieces," Weaver said. "His leadership has improved. Just all the way around, he's grown up, and that's a fun thing to watch."
Big Walnut also returns the team's top rusher in senior Tyler Crotinger, a special mention all-district honoree who rushed for 541 yards and eight touchdowns on 116 carries.
Senior linebackers Ryan Coletta (team-high 51 tackles, second-team all-league, honorable mention all-district), Max Lenz (first-team all-league, special mention all-district) and Crotinger return in the middle of Big Walnut's 4-2-5 defense.
Much attention during the preseason has been on the line where seniors Quintin Humphries (second-team all-league) and Bryce Wardlow are the only returning starters.
"That's been the most competitive position here early on, where guys are busting their tails for spots," Weaver said. "When you get that going on, you get a lot of guys who are developing and raising their level of play."
Juniors Alex Ferguson, Jake Ross, Mahlon Spangler and Cole Wecker and sophomores Aiden Hernandez and Wyatt Lenz are competing for playing time. Gone is 2019 graduate Josh Hageman, who was honorable mention all-league and all-district.
The Golden Eagles also must replace their top receiver from last season in 2019 graduate Nathan Montgomery, a second-team all-league and all-district honoree who caught 22 passes for 500 yards and three touchdowns, as well as 2019 graduate Sam Elliott (10 catches, 265 yards, 1 TD), who was special mention all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Senior Craig Norman (15 catches, 283 yards) and junior Zach Barnecut return as starting receivers, and senior Lucas Ronk will start at tight end.
"We're going to build around what we have and put them in the best position to be successful," Weaver said.
Big Walnut's experience on defense is spread throughout the unit, and Weaver is even more comfortable with its depth.
"Some of these guys might not have been starters, but they have Friday night experience," he said. "They like to play hard and play physical, and we're going to take that as the foundation of our defense."
Humphries, Ronk and junior Caden Williams return as starters on the line, and Norman and Barnecut will have starting roles in the secondary for a defense that allowed 28.2 points per game last season.
Senior Landon Rutkowski will handle the kicking and punting duties.
Quarterback: *Jagger Barnett (jr., 6-3, 180)
Running backs: *Tyler Crotinger (sr., 5-11, 180), Mitchell Embaugh (sr., 5-11, 184), Caden Williams (jr., 6-0, 175)
Tight end: *Lucas Ronk (sr., 6-2, 220), Justin Blair (jr., 6-2, 175), A.J. Leasure (jr., 6-0, 180)
Receivers: *Zach Barnecut (jr., 6-0, 170), *Craig Norman (sr., 6-1, 165), Cohen Andreini (sr., 5-9, 180), Grant Colson (fr., 5-10, 165), Frank Crotinger (sr., 6-4, 190), Dylan Lowe (sr., 6-3, 185), John White (sr., 6-3, 165)
Linemen: *Quintin Humphries (sr., 6-0, 244), *Bryce Wardlow (sr., 6-2, 260), Alex Ferguson (jr., 5-9, 215), Aiden Hernandez (so., 6-0, 205), Wyatt Lenz (so., 5-10, 180), Jake Ross (jr., 6-3, 170), Mahlon Spangler (jr., 5-11, 205), Cole Wecker (jr., 6-2, 215)
Linemen: *Humphries, *Ronk, *Williams, Frank Crotinger, Gavin McKelvey (sr. 6-3, 350), Andrew Sydnor (jr., 5-11, 190)
Linebackers: *Ryan Coletta (sr., 5-9, 170), *Tyler Crotinger, *Max Lenz (sr., 6-0, 240), Leasure, Gordon Rond (jr., 5-10, 160), Gage Sutton (jr., 6-0, 180), Lucas Tindall (so., 6-0, 165)
Secondary: *Barnecut, *Norman, Jacob Bales (jr., 6-2, 170), Jonathan Embaugh (jr., 5-10, 140), Justin Embaugh (jr., 5-10, 145), Sam Fortney (jr., 6-0, 160), Brady Hershberger (jr., 5-11, 155), Lane Pritchard (so., 5-10, 155), Jake Summers (jr., 5-9, 160)
Kicker: *Landon Rutkowski (sr., 6-1, 215)
Long snapper: Wyatt Lenz, Wardlow
Returners: Barnecut, Norman, Williams
(*Denotes projected starter)