It took 20 years, but Kele Waaland finally got to the head of his football family's table when he was named Licking Heights coach in May.
Before serving as one of Darren Waters' assistants the past 14 seasons, Waaland played at Dresden Tri-Valley from 1998-2001 for his uncle, Jim Kaser, and father, Kim, who was the Scotties' defensive coordinator. They had coached Waters as a player, Waters was an assistant coach when Waaland was in school, and then later at Licking Heights, all three coached Waters' son, Gavin.
Still, Waaland thinks he grew the most as a Hornet and looks forward to leading the program one of his mentors guided to a 100-49 record, five playoff appearances and four league titles since 2005. Waters now is outside linebackers coach at Otterbein.
"This program is something I grew up in, but also something I feel like I helped create," Waaland said. "It's different because we don't have coach Waters' personality and we don't have his input and expertise, but in some respects, we're comfortable with this and it's something we've all worked really hard to develop. The culture he put in place did not go away.
"We haven't skipped a beat."
The Hornets return experience on both the offensive and defensive lines, including Miami University commit Reid Holskey, from a team that went 6-4 overall and 2-2 in the LCL-Buckeye Division last season, third behind champion Granville (4-0).
Licking Heights will have to compensate for the graduation of several key players, including quarterback Jacob Righter, who completed 100 of 176 passes for 1,129 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 708 yards and nine touchdowns on 119 carries.
Holskey is confident that the team's familiarity with Waaland will ease the transition.
"It's similar, but (Waaland) added some of his own things," said Holskey, an offensive tackle and defensive end who is the program's first Football Bowl Subdivision-bound player. "It's been a productive summer. I like what we're doing."
Licking Heights opens Aug. 30 at home against Westland, the first of three consecutive Division I schools it will face to start the season. The Hornets then visit Reynoldsburg and play host to New Albany, which is in Division I for the first time, as they hope to get off to a fast start and amass computer points in Division II, Region 7 before the LCL-Buckeye schedule begins Oct. 4 at home against Granville.
The Hornets lost their final two games last season and finished 16th in Region 7, eight spots shy of a playoff berth.
"We have not been this green in a long time. It's not that they don't have talent or can't make plays, it's that they haven't been out there on a Friday night," Waaland said. "Until you do that, you never know how it will pan out."
Senior Markeece Brown, who joined the program after several years of concentrating on basketball, and junior Noah Coultas vied for the starting quarterback job throughout the preseason.
They will play behind a line that, in addition to Holskey and junior center Jesse Williamson, includes seniors Trent Coulter and Jordan Hinkle and juniors Nate Pack and Chase Wallace.
Senior Paapa Yeboah and juniors Jeveon Anderson and Andre Newberry will share time at tight end.
"(Brown and Coultas) each bring something to the table. It's a situation where we might very well be playing both of them on a Friday night," Waaland said, adding that as many as eight offensive linemen might play in a given game.
"It's always an advantage to (be able to) give those guys somewhere to run," Holskey said. "Experience doesn't matter as long as you have somebody to run behind. We trust those guys and if they trust us, we'll be able to move and score some touchdowns."
Righter was the only Hornet to rush for more than 400 yards last season. The rest of the carries were spread between a handful of backs, including Wilson.
Evans is excited for his first season as a contributing player on offense.
"I haven't played much offense besides this year. I was ready (to go to running back)," Evans said. "I practiced but never played it much. I'm excited for the chance. I like the challenge and the competition. All that competition makes you constantly improve."
According to Waaland, senior Kevin Carter is the Hornets' only experienced receiver.
Although Evans will play on both sides of the ball, he will remain a primary contributor to Licking Heights' 44 cover 3 defense, for which he is in his third season as a starting inside linebacker.
On the line, ends Anderson, Holskey, Williamson and junior Zach Lammers will flank Pack, senior Myles Slebo, Wallace and Yeboah at tackle.
"We feel very fortunate up front," Waaland said. "(Evans) is the captain of our defense."
Carter, Frazier and seniors Brendan Olinski and Hunter Schell will anchor the secondary.
Among the many members of Waters' coaching staff to remain with the Hornets was longtime defensive coordinator Jeff Boyer. Waaland said Boyer spent some time with the Miami Dolphins during the offseason, as his son, Josh, is the Dolphins' cornerbacks coach after serving as a defensive coach with the New
England Patriots from 2006-18, winning three Super Bowls.
"It's pretty good when you can learn at the highest levels of the game," Waaland said. "The 44 cover 3 is the basis of this program defensively. We'll mess around with three-man fronts and multiple blitzing packages."
Licking Heights gave up an average of 25.8 points last season and held only one opponent to fewer than 19 points. That came in a 44-0 win over Lakewood in Week 7.
According to Waaland, a placekicker had not been determined entering the final full week of the preseason, but Brown was slated to be the punter despite the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position.
Quarterbacks: *Markeece Brown (sr.), Noah Coultas (jr.)
Running backs: *Mekhi Evans (sr.), *Cody Wilson (sr.), Markus Frazier (sr.), Zach Lammers (jr.)
Receivers: *Kevin Carter (sr.), *Jordan Jackson (sr.), Hunter Schell (sr.), Andrew Motley (jr.)
Linemen: *Trent Coulter (sr.), *Jordan Hinkle (sr.), *Reid Holskey (sr.), *Nate Pack (jr.), *Jesse Williamson (jr.) Chase Wallace (jr.)
Tight end: *Paapa Yeboah (sr.), Jeveon Anderson (jr.), Andre Dewberry (jr.)
Linemen: *Holskey, *Pack, *Williamson (jr.), *Yeboah, Myers Slebo (sr.), Anderson, Lammers, Wallace
Linebackers: *Evans, *Caleb Malone (jr.), *Wilson, Kyle Armstrong (sr.)
Secondary: *Carter, *Frazier, *Brendan Olinski (sr.), *Schell
Kicker: To be determined
Returners: Carter, Frazier, Williamson
Long snapper: *Kenny Salts (jr.)
(*Denotes projected starter)