Coming off his first season as Watkins Memorial coach, the top item on Jake Kuhner's offseason to-do list for his team was clear.
As his coaching staff and players continued to learn the others' expectations and talents, both sides felt conditioning had to improve. Although the Warriors were outscored just 256-230 last year, Kuhner and his players felt those numbers did not tell the full story.
"We had some close games and some blowouts where we totally lost confidence in ourselves," said Kuhner, whose second season begins Aug. 30 at home against Walnut Ridge. "The young guys got down and we didn't bounce back. Look at all our first halves, except for Johnstown (a 38-7 loss in Week 5), we were in (games). The biggest thing is getting these guys to finish and play together. Our conditioning is head and shoulders above anything we did last year.
"All summer (2018), we'd been trying to beat them into shape and we never really got to where we wanted to be. This year, we've done a ton of running this summer. They're doing a good job. We should be much better."
Fourteen starters -- nine on offense and five on defense -- return from a team that went 4-6 overall and 1-3 in the LCL-Buckeye Division last year, third behind champion Granville (4-0). That doubled the Warriors' win total from 2017 but still left them short of their first winning season since 2015.
"The second half would get to us. Conditioning just was not where we needed it to be," senior running back and defensive back Luke Albin said. "We did a lot of speed (work), high-intensity running, a lot of lifting and getting bigger, faster and stronger."
Juniors should play a large part in determining Watkins Memorial's fortunes, as will a new quarterback. Either senior Robby Montagnese or sophomore Liston Shroyer will start behind an offensive line comprised entirely of sophomores and juniors, and their classmates will be scattered across the field either as starters or backups.
The Warriors begin league play Oct. 11 against Licking Valley.
"We're ahead of last year," Kuhner said. "The biggest thing right now with the guys is their mentality, so that's the next thing we have to tweak a little bit before we get into the season. Our scrimmages have been a good eye-opener."
Montagnese and Shroyer vied during the preseason to replace 2019 graduate Connor Brandon, who completed 70 of 181 passes for 842 yards, seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season.
"Robby is more of a pounder; he's a good reader of a defense," Kuhner said. "But Liston, looking at him from last year, he is way stronger. He's a heck of a thrower and he's young and still learning the position. Robby, I would say, has him that way, but Liston is playing well with ball placement and everything."
At running back, Albin and junior Gage Lowery likely will shoulder the load lost to graduation with Austin Branham, who rushed for 1,278 yards and 15 touchdowns on 195 carries. Senior Tony Calovini might get some carries, but he largely concentrates on linebacker duties and could be a backup tight end behind senior Christian Harvey.
Senior wide receiver Seth Cook caught 16 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns a year ago. Also returning at that position are senior Eli Wilson and junior Parker Hill, with sophomore Nate Younker expected to contribute.
Juniors Eli Doyle, Frank Dunn and Clive Stephens Jr. will anchor an offensive line that has added classmate Elijah Polley, a transfer from Licking Heights. That foursome averages 6-foot-3, 293 pounds, with Jolley and Stephens Jr. standing 6-5, 325 and 6-1, 315, respectively.
"Three of us juniors, me, Elijah and Frank, are experienced because we were here last year," Stephens Jr. said. "We know the plays now and we're working on executing at full speed and full strength."
The returning starters on defense are Albin (CB), Calovini (LB), Harvey (OLB), Wilson (SS) and senior Aaron Zimak (DL).
"A good thing is we're not trying to fill too many spots," Kuhner said. "We do have a lot of guys going both ways."
Hill and junior Mason Swearengen also will play inside linebacker, with seniors Cameron Burt and Jeff Hessler and sophomore Cullen McFarland joining the secondary.
Cook and junior Nick Mumford are expected to be starting safeties.
Albin is in his third season as a starting cornerback and second as a starter at running back.
"Eli Wilson at strong safety is pretty good. We have a strong line," Albin said. "Our (defensive backs) are good, but we can get better. Tony will be huge for us at linebacker. He hits hard."
Watkins Memorial held four opponents to eight points or fewer last season but also gave up 33 or more four times.
Quarterbacks: *Robby Montagnese (sr., 5-11, 180), Liston Shroyer (so., 5-10, 140)
Running backs: *Luke Albin (sr., 5-7, 145), *Gage Lowery (jr., 5-8 175), Tony Calovini (sr., 5-10, 215), Aaron Ziomek (jr., 5-11, 230)
Receivers: *Seth Cook (sr., 6-1, 170), *Parker Hill (jr., 5-11, 190), *Eli Wilson (sr., 6-0, 215), Nate Younker (so., 6-0, 150)
Tight end: *Christian Harvey (sr., 6-2, 210), Calovini
Linemen: *Eli Doyle (jr., 6-2, 270), *Frank Dunn (jr., 6-4, 260), *Elijah Polley (jr., 6-5, 325), *Clive Stephens Jr. (jr., 6-1, 315), Josh Cangelosi (so., 5-10, 215), Jacob Joyce (jr., 5-10, 190)
Linemen: *Melvin Landaverde (sr., 6-0, 345), *Polley, *Zimak
Linebackers: *Calovini, *Harvey, *Hill, Montagnese, Mason Swearengen (jr., 5-9, 165)
Secondary: *Albin, *Cameron Burt (sr., 5-7, 150), *Cook, *Wilson, Jeff Hessler (sr., 5-9, 130), Cullen McFarland (so., 5-8, 145), Nick Mumford (jr., 5-9, 140), Jack Treinish (sr., 5-11, 175)
Punter: *Cook, Aidan Cleary (so., 6-2, 155)
Returners: Albin, Lowery
Long snapper: *Mumford
(*Denotes projected starter)