After 12 months at Olentangy Berlin High School, coach Mark Nori is finally seeing a semblance of a football program.
One year ago, the Bears had just moved into their newly built school and were without seniors, which thrust the juniors into a de facto leadership role. Now those juniors are seniors with a year of experience and a hunger to succeed.
"What a difference a year makes," Nori said. "You don't formulate that whole program culture until you go a full 12 months.
"I just think we have a better understanding of each other. Everyone was like, 'Who's this guy who came in from Stow(-Munroe Falls) and what does he represent?' I was wondering about the kids and their capabilities. You have to go through a year to understand that. The big thing is the expectations I have of the kids and that the kids have of me are getting better each day."
Berlin started by defeating Briggs 53-22 in the program's inaugural contest, but then dropped its final nine games to finish 1-9 overall and 0-7 in the OCC-Cardinal Division.
Senior running back Johnny Spinner, the team's top returning rusher, said that experience helped the team grow.
"It's definitely a new environment this fall," said Spinner, who rushed for 781 yards and eight touchdowns on 191 carries. "Last year was a trial-and-error type of thing. I already feel 100 percent better. We look like a whole new team. We have depth and the players are more physical. Everything is coming together."
Since the Bears didn't have a senior class, almost everyone returns. The biggest loss was starting offensive lineman Gabe Chrysler, who opted to focus on his studies.
"We've really come together as team and we're more like a family," senior linebacker Jake Hill said. "We all came back with varsity experience, and we're just a lot faster."
Senior linebacker Trevor Scott led Berlin in tackles (77) and tackles for loss (11) and also had an interception. He said the difficult experience last fall made him and his teammates better leaders.
"Leadership has been the biggest difference for us this year, especially on defense," said Scott, who was special/honorable mention all-district in Division III and second-team all-league. "Last year we lacked leadership and accountability. Whether it's leading in individual drills or showing the guys how to give effort or how to make up for mistakes, it's better."
Nori said it all comes down to learning from the hardships of last season, which he thinks will make the Bears better on both sides of the ball.
"Last year, if you look at our halftime scores, we were in some of the games," he said. "Then in the second half, we would wear down. We didn't have the numbers in terms of personnel to have rotations. We have that this year and we also learned a lot about ourselves. That's a big help."
Nori said it's not only the players who are getting comfortable, but the coaches as well.
The Bears utilize the term "multiple" in the offensive scheme in a true sense. Nori and offensive coordinator Nick McVay align players in a spread formation or have a stacked backfield or whatever formation will best utilize his players' strengths.
"Nick has done a good job piecing things together," Nori said. "He came in from Robert Morris with a good passing game and I brought a similar run game from Stow. We combined things last year. This year he will be the sole signal caller. His implementing of the offense has been great."
Spinner (honorable mention all-league) is joined in the backfield by junior quarterback Jacob Moeller, who was 112-for-199 passing for 1,517 yards with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
His two top targets return in seniors Corey Hill (second-team all-district and first-team all-league; 27 catches, 386 yards, 5 TDs) and Jalen Weitzel (30 catches, 487 yards, 6 TDs). Weitzel will be out to start the season with a broken collarbone, however, and first-year senior Jack Nebraska should help take up the slack in his absence
Seniors Noah Dursik (6-2, 275; second team all-district and all-league), Matt Roberts (5-9, 260) and Cole Troyer (6-2, 270) and junior Antonio Alonso (5-9, 250) are back on a beefy line.
"The offense will be good if everyone stays healthy," Spinner said. "The offensive line and the quarterbacks are better. We have better tempo as well.
"There are multiple things we're stressing. We have to do the little things right. We have to stay focused and can't take any plays off."
Once again, Berlin will use an unorthodox 3-5-3 defensive scheme.
"(Defensive coordinator Jeremy Arend) brought in a unique defense that we were able to implement and learn last season," Nori said. "With what he does defensively, you need the experience to really understand it.
"Last year we were trying to figure everything out. Having familiarity with the kids and what they're capable of doing makes all of the difference."
Jake Hill (second-team all-district, special mention all-league; 71.5 tackles, 8.5 for loss) drops back from the defensive line to join Scott (special/honorable mention all-district, second-team all-league) and Corey Hill (49 tackles, 4 interceptions) at linebacker.
"The defense has been great," Jake Hill said. "We're getting our assignments down and we're progressing forward. Last year a lot of guys came in and didn't have a lot of experience. They didn't know the expectations of our coaches and now we know those and are able to put things in effect."
Senior Marcus Elliott (42 tackles) and junior Justin Rader (2 interceptions) anchor the defensive backfield. The defensive line will have a heavy rotation to keep bodies fresh.
The Bears have a strong kicking game in senior Jacob Lewis and Moeller.
Lewis first became a place-kicker last fall, but the former soccer player is now the 18th-rated kicker in the nation, according to the website Kohl's Kicking. As a junior he was 6-for-8 on field goals and 14-for-17 on extra points to earn second-team all-district and league.
Moeller (second-team all-district, first-team all-league) averaged 39.4 per punt.
Quarterbacks: *Jake Moeller (jr., 6-4, 185), Dylan Reyes (so., 5-10, 150)
Running backs: *Aadin Cain (sr., 6-3, 190), *Johnny Spinner (sr., 5-10, 210), *Brendan Wiehe (sr., 6-2, 185), Benant Bukari (sr., 5-9, 165), Trey Keith (so., 5-9, 185), Aiden Mowrey (so., 6-1, 170), Nick Tiberio (so., 6-0, 160)
Receivers: *Corey Hill (sr., 5-9, 170), *Aidan Pettograsso (sr., 6-3, 165), *Jalen Weitzel (sr., 6-1, 175), Bennett Lawrence (so., 5-10, 170), Liam McGreevey (jr., 6-0, 155), Jack Nebraska (sr., 6-2, 180), Colin Pethtel (so., 5-8, 145), Justin Rader (jr., 5-11, 135)
Linemen: *Antonio Alonso (jr., 5-9, 250), *Noah Dursik (sr., 6-2, 275), *Jon Harder (so., 6-4, 250),*Matt Roberts (sr., 5-9, 260), *Cole Troyer (jr., 6-2, 270), Andrew Cline (jr., 5-10, 290), Braden Cook (sr., 6-3, 260), Bryce Young (so., 5-10, 250)
Linemen: *Austin Burchinal (so., 5-10, 275), *Ethan Collins (sr., 6-4, 190), Alonso, Cook, Harder, Jon Johnson (sr., 5-9, 230), Ethan Lee (so., 6-1, 220), Xavier Walker (sr., 5-11, 235), Matt Weikel (so., 5-10, 200)
Linebackers: *Cain, *Izzy Foston (sr., 6-0, 170), *Jake Hill (sr., 6-4, 220), *Nick Pettograsso (jr., 5-10, 175), *Trevor Scott (sr., 5-9, 205), Gage Lillie (so., 6-0, 170), Mowrey, Tiberio, Wiehe
Secondary: *Marcus Elliott (sr., 5-11, 165), *McGreevey, *Rader, Bukari, Conner Gavin (so., 5-8, 135), Lawrence, Pethtel, Ian Poehler (sr., 5-11, 155)
Kickers: *Jacob Lewis (sr., 6-3, 210), Delaney Siniff (sr., 5-7, 130)
Punters: Lewis, Moeller
Returners: Bukari, C. Hill
Long snapper: Reyes
(*Denotes projected starter)