Despite being besieged with injuries the past two seasons, Hilliard Darby finished strong a year ago to qualify for the Division I postseason for the sixth time in the past seven seasons.
The Panthers won their final six games in the regular season before falling to Clayton Northmont 42-20 in the first round in Region 3 to finish 8-3. In 2017, Darby won its final five regular-season games before losing to Centerville 35-0 to finish 7-4.
Coach John Santagata is hoping for a stronger start and fewer injuries this season, which kicks off Aug. 30 at home against Olentangy.
"Last year we had scrimmages canceled because of lightning and it really hurt us early in the season," said Santagata, who is beginning his 12th season. "We were amazed at how much it hurt. Those scrimmages are important. It took us too long to find our identity. We have to start well and be disciplined to win those early games and especially with our non-league schedule because it's always against multiple traditional playoff teams."
Before OCC-Cardinal Division play begins Sept. 20 at home against Hilliard Bradley, the Panthers also will play host to Hilliard Davidson on Sept. 6 and at Lancaster on Sept. 13.
"The kids are working hard and the seniors, as a whole, are developing into good leaders," Santagata said. "Those are the two ingredients that lead to success. On the talent level, we're replacing a lot on the offensive line. On the defensive side, we're replacing a lot of guys in the secondary and some defensive linemen.
"We need the offensive line to jell quickly and for them to understand what we're trying to do. The kids need to understand things fast so that they can stop thinking and just play fast. We need to win some of these early games."
Senior center Scott Hartline, the lone full-time starter returning on the offensive line, will be the anchor of that unit.
"We have to work with what we've got and improve," said Hartline, who was second-team all-league. "We need to play disciplined and know our assignments and our rules. We've got to play hard and fire out fast and low every single play and that's the key."
Senior Jake Davidson and junior Jacob Neri are expected to start at guard, with senior Carter Hornish and junior Ethan Kolb at tackles. Sophomore Hayden Gladden also is expected to see time at tackle.
"We don't have a massive offensive line, but we've never had a real big offensive line with the exception of maybe one year," Santagata said. "They just have to be really sound at what they do. We have some good pieces, so we just need that offensive line to jell and get things done up front. The sooner that happens, the better we're going to be."
The Panthers return experience at the skill positions, with third-year starter Jack Stultz at quarterback and Evan Grose and Eric Williams at running backs, Connor Jones at fullback, Griffin Hart at receiver and Creed Galko at tight end.
Jones rushed for 1,344 yards and nine touchdowns on 225 carries and was first-team all-league.
"The luxury of a third-year quarterback is how smoothly things can run," Santagata said. "Jack's been doing a great job leading the younger guys. He's seeing things differently than he did three years ago.
"We really do have some shiny points on the offense, with so many guys back with experience.
"Creed is a three-year starter and Griffin is doing a nice job at receiver. Evan Gross, Eric Williams and Connor Jones are going to have good seasons if things come together as we anticipate."
Senior linebackers Alex Briggs and Geno Sekura return to lead the defense. Both were special mention all-league last season. Briggs had 95 tackles, including seven for loss, and Sekura had 74 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss.
"I think our linebacker group looks very strong," Santagata said. "Alex has been on the field since his sophomore year and Geno Sekura is a returning starter. Then you have Connor Jones and he's another hard-nosed kid.
"Ryan Morbitzer, at cornerback, is the only returning starter in the secondary. The key for us is getting pressure on the quarterback. Sometimes you just need a different type of athlete in there. These guys are a year older and we're expecting to be able to get more pressure on the quarterbacks."
Hoping to apply the pressure up front is a group that includes juniors Blayne Barnes, Sam Donnelly, Kole Kendall and Andrew Williams, with help from Galko and Hartline at times.
"We'll face a lot of spread offenses," Santagata said. "Spreads have evolved in the past five years from all those run-pass options to the shorter, quicker pass games that put you in a bind. Defensively, you have to have a lot of awareness, be sound and play fast to compete."
Sophomore Danny Gajda is taking over at place-kicker, and Brad Weaver and Jones are competing at punter. Hornish will be the long snapper.
Grose and Michael Morone will return punts and kickoffs.
Quarterbacks: *Jack Stultz (sr.), Connor Jones (jr.), Ben Marsh (fr.)
Running backs: *Evan Grose (sr.), *Jones (jr.), *Eric Williams (jr.), SeVeon Stewart (jr.)
Receivers: *Griffin Hart (sr.), Geno Sekura (sr.), Braeden Fichtner (jr.)
Tight end: *Creed Galko (sr.)
Linemen: *Jake Davidson (sr.), *Scott Hartline (sr.), *Ethan Kolb (jr.), *Jacob Neri (jr.), *Carter Hornish (sr.), Hayden Gladden (so.)
Linemen: *Blayne Barnes (jr.), *Sam Donnelly (jr.), *Kole Kendall (jr.) *Andrew Williams (jr.), Galko, Hartline
Linebackers: *Alex Briggs (sr.), *Jones, *Sekura, Andrew Konkus (jr.), Luke Manche (so.), Marsh
Secondary: *Grose, *Ryan Morbitzer (sr.), *Zach Vent (sr.), Sam Buoni (jr.), Fichtner, Blake Horvath (so.), Derek Neville (sr.), Stewart, Stultz, E. Williams
Kicker: Danny Gajda (so.)
Punters: *Brad Weaver (jr.), Jones
Returners: Grose, Michael Morone (sr.)
Long snapper: Hornish
(*Denotes projected starter)