When the current seniors for Licking Valley were freshmen, the program experienced its first losing season in more than a decade.

The success the program has enjoyed under Randy Baughman -- who is the dean of central Ohio coaches heading into his 38th season -- includes reaching the playoffs the last two years and 18 times overall.

Last season was among the best under Baughman, as the Panthers made it to a Division IV state semifinal. It was the seventh time Licking Valley had reached a state semifinal but the first since 2008.

Most of Licking Valley's top players were seniors a year ago, including one of the district's best running backs in Connor McLaughlin, quarterback Chase Whisner and an offensive lineman who is now at Iowa State in Jarrod Hufford.

Even with those losses, seniors including Mitchell Ford and Jeremy Bravard don't see the program taking a step back.

"It was my freshman year when they went 4-6, and to come out the next season and go 10-0 (in the regular season) and win the league was huge for us," Ford said. "Obviously with any season like that, the momentum tends to carry over into the next season. There were a lot of young kids that got their opportunity to show what they're capable of last year."

Licking Valley lost to all three of the opponents on its regular-season schedule that went on to make the playoffs, including Thornville Sheridan. The Panthers travel to face the Generals in their Aug. 30 opener.

Baughman remembers experiencing "some real lulls" last season before things came together with a Division IV, Region 15 title and a tight loss to Girard (53-48) in a state semifinal.

"That final loss in week nine against Granville (38-14) we were looking dead in the water, but the seniors took that loss and turned it into something positive and kicked us off into the playoffs," Bravard said.

"It was a sense of determination, and I'm hoping all the seniors this year are going to be able to guide the younger players. We're definitely young, but we have plenty of heart and effort, and also a lot of talent. I've seen a lot of improvement out of all of them."

OFFENSE

Ford will get the majority of touches at running back after finishing with 487 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries. He also added 30 receptions for 581 yards and four scores while serving as a slot receiver.

Taking over at quarterback for Whisner -- who completed 109 of 170 passes for 1,613 yards with 12 touchdowns and rushed for 19 scores -- is senior Logan Bragg. He's what Baughman calls "a program player" who also was a standout pitcher for the district championship baseball team last spring.

"(Bragg's) got a very strong arm and is a very knowledgeable kid," Baughman said.

One of the deepest areas for the Panthers is at wide receiver, where seniors Carson Conley and Ricky Collins and junior Bodee Creech will fill key roles. Conley, who had 22 receptions, also will line up at tight end at times, with senior Hayden Hile splitting time between wide receiver and H-back.

That group will try to fill the void left by McLaughlin, who rushed for 1,987 yards and 25 touchdowns.

Bravard is a tackle who has the biggest frame (6-foot-2, 290 pounds) and most experience on an offensive line that also should include junior Eldon Fyffe at one guard spot and junior Brandon Bishop at center.

DEFENSE

Senior linebacker Noah Hopkins is the top returnee on defense after finishing with 80 tackles and 17 tackles for loss.

Senior Connor Buxton and junior Dylan Dodson should join Hopkins at linebacker. Creech (36 tackles, one interception) and Ford (30 tackles, two interceptions) are other options at the position.

Senior Hayden Hile returns at safety after finishing with 59 tackles and two interceptions. He's joined in the secondary by junior safety Devin McConnell, who was a key backup last season, and senior cornerback Luke Hampton.

At the other cornerback spot, senior Colby Sipos and junior Xavier Felumlee are among the options.

Juniors Chase Hartshorn and Mason Stevens figure to be at end, with seniors Kurt Carr and Stewart as interior linemen.

"We're going to have a lot of speed on the field," Baughman said. "We're not going to be real big, but I think we've got more experience on that side of the ball, so (defense) is obviously ahead of the offense right now."

SPECIAL TEAMS

Ford and Hile will fill multiple roles on special teams as well.

Ford averaged nearly 35 yards per punt and placed 10 kicks inside the 20 and also saw action on kickoff returns. Hile returned 13 punts and 19 kickoffs.

They'll be joined in the return game by junior Devin McConnell, who also will be the long snapper on punts. Hile will snap for field goals and extra points.

THE LINEUP

Offense

Quarterbacks: *Logan Bragg (sr., 6-0, 185), Cameron Parmer (so., 6-0, 175)

Running backs: *Mitchell Ford (sr., 6-1, 195), Denali Harris (jr., 6-0, 170), Chase Hartshorn (jr., 6-2, 225)

Receivers: *Ricky Collins (sr., 5-11, 155), *Carson Conley (sr., 6-2, 185), *Bodee Creech (jr., 6-2, 185), Hayden Hile (sr., 6-0, 160)

Tight end: Conley

H-back: Hile

Linemen: *Brandon Bishop (jr., 6-5, 215), *Jeremy Bravard (sr., 6-2, 290), *Eldon Fyffe (jr., 6-0, 210), Kurt Carr (sr., 6-0, 240), Dalton Stewart (sr., 6-1, 215)

Defense

Linemen: *Carr, *Hartshorn, *Mason Stevens (jr., 6-0, 185), *Stewart, Dylan Camp (jr., 5-10, 230)

Linebackers: *Connor Buxton (sr., 6-1, 190), *Dylan Dodson (jr., 5-10, 180), *Noah Hopkins (sr., 6-1, 175), Creech, Ford

Secondary: *Luke Hampton (sr., 5-10, 155), *Hile, *Devin McConnell (jr., 6-0, 180), Xavier Felumlee (jr., 5-10, 150) Colby Sipos (sr., 6-0, 160)

Special teams

Kickers: *Ben Kozlowski (jr., 5-9, 165), Ford

Punter: *Ford

Returners: *Ford, *Hile, *McConnell

Long snappers: Hile, McConnell

(*Denotes projected starter)

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek