Olentangy coach Mark Solis is depending on his team and coaching staff to make sure that the struggles of last season -- which despite a losing record included a share of the OCC-Buckeye Division championship and a Division II, Region 8 playoff berth -- ensure that the program remains among the area's most competitive.
The Braves' fortunes will rely partly on a promising junior class, which had many members see considerable playing time, and the progression of senior quarterback Trent Maddox.
Olentangy, which opens Aug. 30 at Hilliard Darby, has 72 players in grades 10-12 as it continues to be impacted by last year's opening of Olentangy Berlin.
"Numbers are a little low in the younger grades but we're certainly getting better. We have a lot of guys returning," said Solis, who is entering his seventh season. "We have some wide receivers doing very good things. Our defense is getting better. I like what I'm seeing."
The Braves went 5-6 overall and 4-1 in the league last year, losing 49-42 at top-seeded Cincinnati Winton Woods in the first round of the playoffs. The Braves, who clinched the last of eight postseason berths in the region with 18.3 points, led Winton Woods 35-14 at halftime and amassed 603 yards of offense but still fell short.
"We can go deep this year," senior running back/linebacker Nick Boyarko said. "We're coming together as a unit and we know what we're capable of doing."
Olentangy, Olentangy Liberty and Olentangy Orange all went 4-1 in the OCC-Buckeye last year to share first place.
The Braves' home opener is Sept. 6 against Miamisburg. They begin league play Oct. 4 at Westerville South, but only after a five-game non-league schedule comprised almost entirely of Division I schools. The only exception is a matchup at Holland Springfield in Week 3.
Both Olentangy and Springfield are in Region 7, which includes some of central Ohio as well as northwest and western parts of the state.
"Being a Division II school, that (schedule) will present a great challenge but our goals have never wavered," Solis said. "We want to beat Darby, have a great first five games and set ourselves up for the conference championship. We feel like we'll be as tough as anybody in Division II, due in large part to our schedule being so challenging.
"Our kids understand and know they let one get away in the playoffs last year. We should have won that game against a darn good football program. Our kids know and understand they can play with anybody in Division II in the state."
Maddox takes over at quarterback after backing up Connor Haag last season.
Maddox, who completed 50 of 77 passes for 577 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions, said he is learning from former Braves quarterback and current assistant coach Deeb Haber. Haber was a three-year starter who led Olentangy to two playoff appearances and a state semifinal berth in 2014.
"Coach Haber has helped me get better at being able to read defenses pre-snap," Maddox said. "We run a (run-pass option) offense so it's not just about making reads post-snap, but making reads pre-snap based on alignments and what defenses will do. We've done a lot of film study."
The Braves, who averaged 28.3 points last year, graduated their top three backs from a rushing game that totaled 1,711 yards and 18 touchdowns. Haag and Maddox combined to throw for 2,845 yards.
Boyarko, classmate Zach Kershner and junior Landon Johnson will split the carries at running back.
"We all have our different attributes," Boyarko said. "Landon is a little heavier (at 5-foot-10, 195 pounds to Boyarko's 5-9, 190) and he'll be hitting those holes hard. He's more of a downhill runner. 'Kersh' and I are the guys who make a few moves and try to get in the open field."
Wide receivers include senior Jake Coleman and juniors Caleb Gossett and Jace Middleton. Coleman caught 24 passes for 352 yards and Middleton had 13 catches for 159 yards.
Several juniors will anchor the line, including center Jason Feasel, guards Anthony DiMarzo and Ethan Wise and tackles T.J. Gadd and Toby Wilson.
Last year's defensive struggles irritated Solis all offseason. The Braves gave up an average of 25 points and 333.3 yards per game, including 431 yards and six touchdowns to Winton Woods running back Miyan Williams in the playoff loss.
Brett Thompson has taken over as the defensive coordinator after previously coaching the defensive line.
"We're tackling well and we have to do that. That's been a point of emphasis," Solis said. "Defensively, there's noticeable improvement. We were not where we needed to be last year."
The top two returning tacklers are both linebackers in Johnson (77) and Kershner (71). Defensive lineman Ethan Hand added 70 stops, including a team-leading five sacks.
"We built in a whole new period to practice just designed for defense," Boyarko said. "We have our tackling wheel, wrapping up, forming up on each other. It's definitely emphasized this year more than in the past."
Middleton had one interception at safety. He will be flanked in the defensive backfield by junior Josiah Seymour as well as a deep group of cornerbacks that includes seniors Hunter Boehm and Sam Konadu, Gossett and junior Daniel Kelly.
Sophomore Hayden Olcott is expected to take over as kicker after the graduation of Brady Pethtel, who made one field goal and 27 of 28 extra points and averaged 33.1 yards per punt.
Middleton and Seymour are competing to be the primary punter.
Quarterbacks: *Trent Maddox (sr., 6-3, 175), Zander Held (so., 5-9, 160)
Running backs: *Nick Boyarko (sr., 5-9, 190), *Landon Johnson (jr , 5-10, 195), Zach Kershner (sr., 5-8, 170), Jordan Wilkerson (jr., 5-9, 170)
Receivers: *Jake Coleman (sr., 6-5, 175), *Caleb Gossett (jr., 6-2, 175), *Jace Middleton (jr., 6-4, 190), Kaden Doup (jr., 5-9, 170), Daniel Kelly (jr., 5-10, 180), Josiah Seymour (jr., 6-2, 180)
Linemen: *Anthony DiMarzo (jr., 5-10, 240), *Jason Feasel (jr., 5-9, 230), *T.J. Gadd (jr., 6-2, 220), *Toby Wilson (jr., 6-2, 265), *Ethan Wise (jr., 6-3, 260), Tyler Barnes (sr., 6-0, 280), Drew Matlak (so., 6-2, 270)
Tight ends: *Ethan Hand (jr., 6-0, 235), Nathan Rudawsky (jr., 6-1, 220)
Linemen: *Sami Azzam (sr., 5-11, 220), *Feasel, *Hand
Linebackers: *Boyarko, *Mitch Grubb (sr., 6-2, 200), *Johnson, *Kershner, Doup
Secondary: *Hunter Boehm (sr., 6-0, 170), *Sam Konadu (sr., 6-0, 175), *Middleton, *Seymour, Gossett, Kelly
Kicker: *Hayden Olcott (so., 5-10, 160)
Punters: *Seymour, Middleton
Returners: Gossett, Kelly, Evan Rindlaub (fr., 5-10, 170)
Long snappers: Doup, Wilson
(*Denotes projected starter)