Milan Smith is looking for what he calls the "silver lining" in his team's situation as he prepares for his sixth season as coach of Harvest Prep.
The Warriors have earned five playoff wins, captured the past five MSL-Cardinal Division championships and have won all 32 league games they've played since Smith took over a program that never had made the postseason during its first 15 seasons.
Despite remaining in Division VII, Region 27 after losing 7-0 to eventual state runner-up Glouster Trimble in a regional semifinal to finish 11-1, Harvest Prep will compete for the first time in the MSL-Ohio, where it will be the smallest program.
While the MSL-Cardinal had five other Division VII schools last season, the Warriors now find themselves in a league featuring a Division II playoff qualifier last season in Whitehall, two Division III programs in Bexley and Buckeye Valley and a Division VI playoff qualifier last fall in Grandview.
Harvest Prep will have only half a dozen key seniors, but its roster has risen to about 40, which rivals any since Smith took over.
Also boosting Harvest Prep's hopes is the addition of a group of transfers who should fill key roles immediately as their team plays a tougher non-league schedule. Eastmoor Academy -- a Division III state semifinalist last season -- has been added as the opener Aug. 30.
"We'll be the only Division VII program (in the MSL-Ohio)," Smith said. "I love what our kids are doing. Right now they're competing at a very high level. Attention to detail is very high because we've got our backs against the wall playing teams anywhere from two to five divisions bigger than us."
Immediately embracing what he sees as a winning culture is senior Esco Davis, a former starter in the defensive backfield for Groveport who is expected to be a two-way starter for the Warriors.
"We feel like we can win state," Davis said. "We've all got to come together on the same page. It's fun. Every practice you've got to push yourself. The talent level is high and the coaching staff makes sure you do everything."
Much of the success the Warriors have on both sides of the ball could be dictated by the return of seniors Javon Eggert, Khelin Jackson and Elijah Rogers.
Eggert rushed for 228 yards and three touchdowns in a 32-21 victory over Bexley to open last season but went down with an injured hip that kept him out until the postseason.
He should lead a running attack that also features junior Rahshaun Goines and sophomore Jaylen Jennings. Goines ran for more than 500 yards and five touchdowns, and Jennings had more than 400 yards rushing a year ago.
Jackson is what Smith calls his "utility knife" because he should see time at guard, tackle, tailback, H-back and on the defensive line.
Rogers will start at tight end on an offense that will have a new quarterback in junior Terrence Kee, another transfer from Groveport.
Senior Langston Perry, a Pickerington Central transfer, should add depth to the backfield.
While Perry is expected to be eligible for the first five games only because of the OHSAA transfer rule, Kee's status after the first five games is uncertain.
"We're going to surprise a lot of people," Rogers said. "We have a bunch of young guys, so it's challenging at times but we're coming together as a family."
Harvest Prep lost the district's Offensive Player of the Year in Daquan Owens-Johnson to graduation after he rushed for more than 1,000 yards, as well as quarterback Moses Davis.
Junior Manny Mullens, who is the younger brother of former Harvest Prep standout and current Wisconsin defensive lineman Isaiah Mullens, should join Rogers in leading the defensive line.
Goines is a returning starter in the defensive backfield and will be at safety.
Eggert, who was pegged as a starter at cornerback last season before getting hurt, will be joined at that position by Davis, while Jennings also should start in the secondary.
The Warriors posted five shutouts, gave up a combined 25 points during their six league contests last season and then allowed just 15 points in the playoffs behind a defense that was led by 2019 graduate Zion Bangura at linebacker as well as Jackson and Rogers, who joined Bangura as first-team all-district honorees on defense.
Junior Phillip Gibson-Perry is a returning starter at linebacker.
Harvest Prep didn't attempt any extra points or field goals last season and aren't expecting to this fall either, according to Smith.
Rogers returns as the long snapper, with Goines the most likely to return kickoffs and punts after being among those who served in that role last season.
Quarterbacks: *Terrence Kee (jr., 5-11, 195), Aden Rogers (fr., 6-1, 175)
Running backs: *Javon Eggert (sr., 5-7, 178), Rahshaun Goines (jr., 5-8, 155), Khelin Jackson (sr., 5-7, 215), Jaylen Jennings (so., 5-9, 170), Langston Perry (sr., 5-10, 175)
Receivers: *Desean Bonte (sr., 6-3, 180), *Esco Davis (sr., 6-1, 180), Jennings
Tight end: *Elijah Rogers (sr., 6-0, 240)
Linemen: *Michael Dungey (jr., 6-1, 260), *Patrick Graves (jr., 5-10, 250), *Jackson, *Omar Martinez (jr., 5-8, 175), *Manny Mullens (jr., 6-3, 259)
Linemen: *Bonte, Michael Gbor (so., 6-2, 175), *Jackson, *Mullens, *Elijah Rogers
Linebackers: *Phillip Gibson-Perry (jr., 6-0, 200), *Joseph Temple (so., 5-10, 280), Chandler Purell (so., 6-0, 190)
Secondary: *Davis, *Eggert, *Goines, *Jennings,
Kicker: To be determined
Punter: To be determined
Long snapper: *Elijah Rogers
(*Denotes projected starter)