Thomas Worthington coach Matt Zingery hopes his team can finally put all the pieces together for a full season and post its first winning record since 1999, when the Cardinals finished 7-3.
In Zingery's first season in 2017, the Cardinals won their first three games before injuries took their toll as they lost six in a row and finished 4-6. Thomas opened 2-2 a year ago, but lost five in a row and finished 3-7 as injuries again decimated the squad.
While injuries can't be prevented, Zingery is excited about this season.
"This is year three for us as a staff, so we really have had a chance to go back and start re-teaching rather than installing things," he said. "The first year we couldn't put too much in and last year we were still adding things. Now, we're so much further ahead of where we were.
"Our guys are familiar with our system and that's allowed us to really work on some of the minute details and finer things. I feel really good about where we're at. We're finally built for the long haul as long as we're able to stay healthy."
The injury woes in the past two seasons could pay dividends in 2019, as the Cardinals have plenty of experience returning.
"The nice thing is when you look at our two-deep (chart), we only have two sophomores in those spots," Zingery said. "We're finally getting to that point in our program where we can play at a high level with seniors and juniors and not have to rely on sophomores quite so much. Even if some of them didn't start or didn't play 10 games, we have a lot of experience with our upperclassmen."
Thomas will be relying on a new quarterback and running back.
Senior James Gaiters will take over at quarterback. He was 13-for-27 passing for 158 yards and two touchdowns last season. He replaces graduate Charlie Rhoades, who was 68-for-135 passing for 879 yards with seven touchdowns in six games before being injured
Also lost to graduation was DiJahn Davis, who rushed for 1,116 yards and 10 touchdowns on 215 carries and was named first-team all-league and all-district.
Senior James Mitchell is expected to start in Davis' spot, with sophomore Nate Hoover providing support.
"We have a new quarterback in James, who did a good job filling in last year," Zingery said. "We're still working on things in the backfield, but no matter who's back there, it's going to be hard to replace DiJahn.
"We may not be run-oriented this year and we've got a plethora of skill guys we feel really good about and several returning linemen."
The weapons include receivers Sheron Phipps, Jayvaun Lane, Nathan Borghese and Cole McDermott and tight end Brandon Ross.
Phipps had 22 receptions for 421 yards and five touchdowns and was second-team all-league and all-district. He also had 41 tackles and three interceptions at defensive back.
"We have a few guys who will go both ways and we feel Sheron gives us the best chance for success on both sides of the ball because of his special skill set," Zingery said. "Jayvaun Lane, Brandon Ross and Sam Carver are others that may play both sides, but we are fighting to get to 22 starters."
Up front, Aleksander Aleksic, Greg Laws and Amilcar Diaz return and will be joined by Ethan Gerding and Carver.
Four of the Cardinals' front seven in their 4-3 base defense have returned.
Senior Bassil Hasan and junior Reese Dykstra will occupy two linebacker spots, Alex Ritchie is back at tackle and Austin Parsons returns at end.
Ross will be the third linebacker, Carver will play at end and Conner Pack will line up at nose tackle.
Last season, Hasan made 68 tackles and was honorable mention all-league and Parsons had 45 tackles and was special mention all-league. Dykstra led the team in tackles with 81 and Ritchie added 37 tackles.
Phipps and McDermott are slated to start at cornerback, with William Kellenberger at free safety and Aramus Welch at strong safety. Lane and Borghese also may get work in the secondary along with Paul Lilly and Abass Kamara.
"Sheron and Jayvaun both started in the secondary last year but made plays at receiver for us as well," Zingery said. "Brandon started every game at tight end and is now trying to transition into a linebacker.
"Our front four is intact from last year. Those guys were a little nicked up but they're all coming back this year. We feel great about our front four."
Owen Graham is a third-year starter at kicker and Luke Coe will do the punting, with Dykstra making the long snaps.
Quarterbacks: *James Gaiters (sr.), Caleb Ortega (so.)
Running backs: *James Mitchell (sr.), Nate Hoover (so.)
Receivers: *Nathan Borghese (sr.), *Jayvaun Lane (jr.), *Sheron Phipps (jr.), Cam Beatty (so.), Cole McDermott (jr.), William Kellenberger (jr.)
Tight ends: *Brandon Ross (jr.), Reese Dykstra (jr.)
Linemen: *Aleksander Aleksic (sr.), *Sam Carver (jr.), *Amilcar Diaz (jr.), *Ethan Gerding (jr.), *Greg Laws (sr.), Ethan Hughes (sr.), Harry Landwehr (sr.), Conner Pack (jr.), Alex Ritchie (sr.), Jacob Suncire (sr.)
Linemen: *Carver, *Pack, *Austin Parsons (sr.), *Ritchie, Luke Coe (sr.), Hughes, Laws, Carson Rank (sr.)
Linebackers: *Bassil Hassan (sr.), *Dykstra, *Ross, Hoover, Zach Horner (jr.), Mitchell
Secondary: *Kellenberger, *McDermott, *Phipps, *Aramus Welch (jr.), Borghese, Abass Kamara (jr.), Lanes, Paul Lilly (sr.)
Kickers: *Owen Graham (sr.), Kyle Moog (jr.)
Returners: To be determined
Long snapper: Dykstra
(*Denotes projected starter)