Canal Winchester coach Josh Stratton admitted his first two seasons with the Indians have gone better than he expected, with 15 wins in 21 games and the team coming off its first league championship in six years.
Turnout has increased 20 percent since Stratton's first year, from 86 players in 2017 to 103 this season. The Indians take a nine-game winning streak, the program's longest since 2010, into their season opener Aug. 30 at home against Thomas Worthington.
Coming off a season in which Canal Winchester went 9-1 overall and 5-0 in the OCC-Capital Division but still fell just short of a playoff berth, Stratton said goals simply have become loftier.
"I didn't know we'd get that good that fast, but now things have been accelerated. Expectations are higher and we have to match those expectations," Stratton said. "Numbers are important but it isn't something I strive for. If we do things the right way, the program will go."
Senior quarterback Jack Beeler, senior multi-threat athlete Tyler Toledo and sophomore running back Stephan Byrd are among several returnees expected to pace the Indians, whose only setback a year ago was a 34-21 loss in week 1 at Thomas Worthington.
Despite their nine victories, Canal Winchester finished ninth in a loaded Division II, Region 7 -- three teams in the region went undefeated -- as the Indians fell just 0.0247 of a point shy of the eighth and final playoff spot.
Canal Winchester has since moved to Division II, Region 8, which features a mix of central and southwest Ohio teams.
Numbers allowed coaches to split the team into White and Maroon squads during the preseason, so that more athletes got first- and second-team reps. The Indians practiced in that fashion until their final scrimmage Aug. 22 against Pickerington North.
"Everybody practiced offense and defense besides the quarterback every day," Stratton said. "Even when we scrimmaged, we (were) rolling two teams. We had two No. 1's, two No. 2's, etc. We're getting more kids the experience they need."
Canal Winchester begins OCC-Capital play Oct. 4 at home against New Albany, which was second (4-1) in the league last year. The Indians edged the Eagles 30-28.
The pain of falling short of the playoffs remains fresh, especially since Canal Winchester would have made the playoffs in each of the other three Division II regions and even three of the four Division I regions.
"(Going) 9-1 and not getting in, that took a bit of a toll on us. I sat and cried about it all night (after the final game of the season)," Beeler said. "Coming back out here with a vengeance is feeding into everything we do. We're pushing for that 10-0. They have to let us in then."
Stratton has assumed offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach responsibilities and plans to mix spread principles with the wing-T.
Byrd, who has been offered by Akron, rushed for 1,258 yards and 10 touchdowns on 217 carries as a freshman.
"I know there's a target on my back. I want to prove myself," Byrd said. "Last year, I wasn't really disciplined. I bounced a lot. I didn't really look at the hole that much, but this year I'm looking to do a lot more."
Beeler completed 106 of 178 passes for 1,433 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 93 yards and four scores on 47 carries, and both will operate behind an offensive line featuring returning players in seniors Kevin Prior (center), Hunter King (tackle) and Michael Wilson (guard).
King hopes to return from an injury by early September.
Beeler said that despite last year's success, he thinks he has plenty of room to improve.
"I don't think I got any better (from my sophomore season). I went through the basics and fundamentals and went with whatever the coaches said," Beeler said. "This year, I'm trying to get my arm strength up. I've been in the weight room a lot doing a lot of push-ups and bench-presses to get my arm stronger and chest bigger, so I can take more shots."
Toledo, who had 70 carries for 507 yards and seven touchdowns, will be used as a running back and slot receiver in addition to playing defense and special teams.
The defense will have to make up for the graduation of linebacker Darren Davis, who made a team-high 123 tackles and was named first-team all-state, but Stratton thinks he has the playmakers to do just that.
Junior Blaine Riley will anchor a unit of linebackers that also includes seniors Seth Gierke and J.J. Mattox and juniors Jonathon Chandler and Isaiah Wilson.
Senior end Hunter Allen, a Youngstown State commit, leads an experienced defensive line that returns senior Chris Snyder at the other end and Prior and Wilson as nose guards.
"We're starting to work together. We're putting the pieces together," said Wilson, who has slimmed down almost 15 pounds from last season and stands 5-foot-9, 258 pounds.
Toledo gave up only three catches all of last year at safety, a position at which senior Dom Davis returns after missing the entire 2018 season because of a torn ACL. Senior Jordan Crump leads a deep group of cornerbacks.
"It's nice to be that versatile player, where I can go wherever I'm needed and do well at that spot," Toledo said. "Our safeties are really good. Our linebackers are knowing what holes to hit. The corners are playing really good defense. All around, we're pretty sound."
Senior Avery Musick is poised to build on a junior season in which he made 33 of 35 extra-point attempts and was 5-for-8 on field goals, with a long of 36 yards. He also caught 18 passes for 238 yards.
At a camp sponsored by KornblueKicking.com in July, Musick made three consecutive field goals from 65 yards.
Toledo and Riley are expected to handle the punting duties, and Toledo also will return kicks.
Quarterbacks: *Jack Beeler (sr.), Reese Musick (so.)
Running backs: *Stephan Byrd (so.), *Dom Davis (jr.), *Tyler Toledo (sr.), Jalen Crump (), Jake Francis (jr.), Evan McGlone (so.), C.J. Taylor (jr.)
Receivers: *Elijah Bulluck (sr.), *Avery Musick (sr.), *Jalen Davis (jr.), Logan Beckwith (sr.), Trevor Carver (sr.), Jamarr Rawls (sr.)
Tight ends: *Hunter Allen (sr.), Andre Heglar (jr.), Blaine Riley (jr.)
Linemen: *Nate Howard (sr.), *Hunter King (sr.), *Kevin Prior (sr.), *Landon Tolbott (jr.), *Michael Wilson (sr.), Tyaire Bridges (sr.), Joey Moreno (jr.)
Linemen: *Allen, *Chris Snyder (sr.), *Prior, *Wilson
Linebackers: *Jonathon Chandler (jr.), *J.J. Mattox (sr.), *Riley, Byrd, Seth Gierke (sr.), Isaiah Wilson (jr.)
Secondary: *Beckwith, *Crump, *Rawls, *Toledo, Bulluck, Carver, Davis, Luke Twiss (jr.)
Kickers: *Musick, Twiss
Punters: *Riley, Toledo
Long snappers: *Prior, Heagler, Ethan McGlone (so.), John Romig (so.)
(*Denotes projected starter)