Looking at Olentangy Orange from a glass-half-full perspective, the Pioneers can hang their helmets on making the Division I playoffs each of the past three seasons.
The glass also happens to be half empty, though, because the team has not won a postseason game in that span.
The goal this fall is for Orange to not only reach the Division I, Region 3 playoffs but to squeeze out some postseason wins.
"The culture we have been building since coach (Zebb) Schroeder came has been really good, and it's part of the culture right now that you make the playoffs," said senior Spencer Hawkins, a first-year starter at quarterback. "Our class is focused on continuing that streak and making it further in the playoffs. We're to the point where making the playoffs is an expectation and beyond that we need it to be the expectation to get wins in the playoffs."
The Pioneers finished 7-4 overall last season, losing to Toledo Whitmer 20-17 in their Region 2 playoff opener, and tied Olentangy Liberty and Olentangy for the OCC-Buckeye Division title at 4-1. They graduated their leading rusher in quarterback Robbie Dayhuff as well as all-state defensive end Zach Harrison and offensive lineman Zach Stevenson, both of whom are playing at Ohio State.
The Pioneers' motto for this season is "prove it," senior linebacker Zach Hill said. "We have a lot to prove even though we have a lot of starters back. We lost a significant (2019 senior) class ... but we're pretty motivated to prove that we can make a run in the playoffs."
Schroeder, who is in his sixth season, said his team has the makeup for success despite not having a roster filled with elite college recruits.
"We don't have an abundance of players who jump off the chart talent-wise, but we have really smart and solid high school football players that work hard on fundamentals of the game," said Schroeder, whose team opens Aug. 30 at Worthington Kilbourne. "They have great maturity, and just their vibe is great. The cohesion of the junior and senior class has been amazing. I'm not sure that I have been around a team that has morphed into one class like this.
"They are very serious about being successful. They have seen the groups before them that have had very good leaders in the last three seasons. They have expectations they have learned from the other guys. I'm proud of the work that they have put in and I want to see them go out and do well."
Hawkins will be the fourth quarterback in as many seasons to attempt to lead the Pioneers to the postseason. J.D. Dayhuff (2016), Luke Schmeling (2017) and Robbie Dayhuff (2018) were the others.
Schroeder said Hawkins has the talent to continue that trend and successfully execute the Pioneers' spread formation.
"This is the fourth year in a row that we will have a senior starting quarterback, which does a great deal for us in terms of leadership," Schroeder said. "At 6(-foot)-3, 205 pounds, he's a big kid that can run the ball and he's one of the smartest kids that I have ever been around. He has worked hard on throwing the football and he has some good receivers around him."
Senior Jake Vanchieri (second-team all-league) rushed for 766 yards and six touchdowns on 159 carries last fall and is one of nine starters back on offense. He will be joined in the backfield by juniors Luke Applegate and Hank Groce. Senior Alex Lopez returns at fullback.
Senior Zane Lattig (25 catches, 301 yards, 2 TDs) is the top receiver back with senior Sam Wyne and junior Caden Konczak also returning. Senior Nate Miller is back at tight end.
"Our offense is as balanced as it has ever been," Hawkins said. "We have a lot of good running backs and we have a lot of receiver depth. I need to make sure that everyone who needs to get the ball will get the ball."
The line has three starters back in senior guard Connor Mathena, senior tackle Najib Talukder and junior tackle Tanner Lester.
"I think one of the things it comes down to is staying focused on our goals and taking things day by day," Talukder said. "We have been looking good (in the preseason). We're fine-tuning some things and getting one step better every day."
Orange returns five defensive starters in its 3-5 alignment and while Harrison isn't one of them, his presence is still felt on the field and in the locker room.
"I think the obvious thing is that we will miss Zach's production, but the not-so-obvious thing is how we will miss him behind the scenes and how he made others better," Schroeder said. "The way he went about doing things and the way he prepared helped to set the standard for the rest of the program. He's not here, but his impact is still felt."
Senior Cardan Mutai is the lone starter back on the line with Hill and senior Eli Payne returning as starting linebackers.
"If we can perfect the small stuff at the beginning, I think we can have more success in the playoffs," Hill said. "The goal for us as seniors is not just to reach the playoffs but win once we get there. One and out won't do it this year. We want to get through November and play in December."
Senior Reece Dunham and junior Joey Guagenti are returning starters at cornerback.
"We don't have as many returning guys as we did last year (on defense), but I think people are underestimating us without Zach this year," Dunham said. "I think we can still be a force because we have good leadership. We still have a lot of guys who want to step up and lead the team for more wins."
Quarterbacks: *Spencer Hawkins (sr., 6-3, 205), Josh Laisure (jr., 5-11, 170)
Running backs: *Alex Lopez (sr., 5-11, 190), *Jake Vanchieri (sr., 6-1, 190), Luke Applegate (jr., 6-2, 194), Hank Groce (jr., 5-9, 169)
Receivers: *Caden Konczak (jr., 5-10, 156), *Zane Lattig (sr., 6-2, 176), *Sam Wyne (sr., 6-4, 210), Julian DiSabato (jr., 5-10, 162), Jack Fenton (sr., 5-10, 190), Joey Guagenti (jr., 5-11, 161), Matt Momberg (sr., 5-10, 1560)
Tight ends: *Nate Miller (sr., 6-4, 269), Rico Franklin (so., 6-3, 230)
Linemen: *Tanner Lester (jr., 6-1, 220), *Connor Mathena (sr., 6-1, 215), *Ryan Minott (jr., 6-0, 220), *Najib Talukder (sr., 6-3, 271), *Josh Young (sr., 6-0, 234), Carter Bluvol (jr., 5-10, 255), Luke Brandt (jr., 5-10, 203), Connor Kemmerling (so., 6-5, 294)
Linemen: *Cardan Mutai (sr., 6-0, 216) *Jared Pack (sr., 6-3, 290), Tanner Davidson (sr., 6-1, 202), Dylan Dempsey (jr., 6-0, 190), Lopez, Tyler Yanka (jr., 6-1, 200)
Linebackers: *Zach Hill (sr., 6-2, 218), *Colin McNay (jr., 6-0, 166), *Eli Payne (sr., 5-10, 204), Jack Almond (sr., 6-0, 187), Jadon Ampadu (jr., 6-1, 190), Evan Leist (sr., 6-0, 184), Caleb Lindley (jr., 5-10, 170)
Secondary: *Reece Dunham (sr., 6-0, 147), *Guagenti, DiSabato, Konczak, Laisure, Momberg
Kickers: Jack Behre (so., 5-10, 146), Aidan Hill (jr., 5-11, 146), Nathaniel Roffman (sr., 5-11, 160)
Returners: Applegate, Guagenti, Konczak, Momberg,
Long snappers: Lattig, Joey Dimeo (jr., 6-0, 179)
(*Denotes projected starter)