Westerville North coach Bryan Johnson has a clear vision of the steps he wants the Warriors to take in his second season, regardless of the level of the program at which they take place.
That is why Johnson said one of last year's biggest moments took place in a junior varsity game rather than under the Friday night lights.
"We'd never beaten an Olentangy team at any level and that was one of our biggest wins last year," Johnson said. "Our varsity kids go to the junior varsity and freshman games and support them, and since we played so many sophomores last year a lot of our guys were out there watching their best friends win. They celebrated with them like they'd just won the game."
North went 3-7 overall and 0-5 in the OCC-Buckeye Division, the fourth consecutive season in which the Warriors did not win a league game. The three Westerville schools -- Central, North and South -- are a combined 1-26 against Olentangy, Olentangy Liberty and Olentangy Orange since the current OCC-Buckeye was formed in 2016.
As far as Johnson and his players are concerned, any progress on that front is critical to changing the culture and breaking a string of 13 consecutive losing seasons.
"That's what's going to change the culture, getting a win like that," said Johnson, whose team opens Aug. 30 at Groveport. "We need to take that next step as a program and that means competing in our (league), competing better against the Westervilles. We need to get better and build the program. We keep talking about the guys coming back after they've graduated in 10 or 15 years and I'll still be here and the staff still being here. We want to point to this as the time that we flipped the culture."
North graduated running back Rondale Smith, who rushed for 1,267 yards and 14 touchdowns on 241 carries last year and also was a starting linebacker, as well as several key linemen on both sides of the ball. Among the key returnees are senior quarterback Auri Dover, junior running back/linebacker Brennan Albertini and junior two-way lineman Reuben Simiyu.
"In the weight room, especially, we had many more people involved and just people who are excited to be here," Dover said. "All we want to do is change the culture at North and win some more games."
Senior running back/linebacker Maximus Plaxico hopes having a full offseason with Johnson in charge pays dividends.
"There's a learning curve to having a new coach, which we've all experienced," Plaxico said. "It's helpful having someone here who's been through the offseason. You really get that team chemistry and chemistry with your coaches."
Dover hopes to be even more of a running and passing threat this year than last, when he completed his first full season as North's starting quarterback.
"Passing will definitely be a key for me to help open the run game a little more. I want to be able to run the ball when needed," Dover said. "I think I'm better than last year, definitely. I am more of a running threat.
"I think we're faster this year, all around. We have more playmakers. We'll be better making plays and won't be scared to be aggressive."
Johnson has plenty of candidates to replace Smith, including Albertini, Plaxico, senior Sam Anzur and junior Sylvester Bockarie. Seniors Jordan Rhodes and Quincy Talmadge and juniors Coby Darlington and Ty O'Hearn are expected to lead the wide receivers.
Brothers Chace and Charles Perkins, who are standouts for North's basketball team, joined the football team for their senior season. According to Johnson, they will contribute as a receiver and tight end, respectively, as well as in the secondary and on the line on the defensive side.
"We have a lot of places we can put the ball," Plaxico said. "We don't have any crazy playmakers, but we have a lot of people who will be moving the ball down the field. We have a lot of potential on offense."
Simiyu is the only returning starter on the offensive line, which also includes seniors Thomas Bobovnyk (C), juniors Mitchell Gillam (G/T) and Mohammed Nasser (C/G) and sophomore Nathan Dunfee (C).
According to Johnson, a linebacking corps led by Albertini, Anzer, Bockarie and Plaxico is the heart of the defense. Senior Coleton Morr also will contribute.
Albertini had a team-high 82 tackles as a sophomore, 58 of which were solo.
"That's our strength. That's why we moved to a 3-4, because we have all of those guys," Johnson said.
"We're fast. We always hit and run to the ball well," said Anzur, who is in his third season as a starting linebacker. "I am excited about our potential. We're much more disciplined. We won't be jumping off the ball or dropping balls as much."
The line includes the team's biggest player in 6-foot-2, 295-pound senior nose guard Dorian Caldwell. Gillam and Simiyu will play nose guard and defensive end, respectively, with Charles Perkins as the other end.
The defense will rely heavily on the experience of younger players. Albertini and junior T.J. Lomax each started 10 games last season at linebacker and free safety, respectively.
"Their heads were spinning at times because the game was moving so fast," Johnson said. "The game is slowing down for them. They've made great strides."
Quarterbacks: *Auri Dover (sr., 5-8, 165), Wyatt Buxton (so., 5-10, 150)
Running backs: *Brennan Albertini (jr., 5-11, 205), *Maximus Plaxico (sr., 5-6, 160), Sam Anzur (sr., 5-10, 190), Sylvester Bockarie (jr., 5-6, 160)
Receivers: *Ty O'Hearn (jr., 6-2, 201), *Jordan Rhodes (sr., 6-0, 165), *Quincy Talmadge (sr., 5-9, 162), Coby Darlington (jr., 5-8, 160), Abdou Keita (sr., 5-11, 150), Chace Perkins (sr., 6-2, 185)
Linemen: *Thomas Bobovnyk (sr., 5-11, 245), *Nathan Dunfee (so., 5-11, 203), *Mitchell Gillam (jr., 6-0, 202), *Mohammed Nasser (jr., 5-10, 222), *Reuben Simiyu (jr., 6-2, 220), Evan Boyd (jr., 6-0, 201)
Linemen: *Dorian Caldwell (sr., 6-2, 295), *Gillam, *Simiyu, Charles Perkins (sr., 6-4, 237)
Linebackers: *Albertini, *Anzur, *Coleton Morr (sr., 5-10, 175), *Plaxico, Bockarie
Secondary: *Marcus Evans (sr., 5-6, 135), * T.J. Lomax (jr., 6-0, 188), *O'Hearn, *Talmadge, Chace Perkins
Kicker: *J.J. Dixon (jr., 5-11, 160), Maggie Moc (so., 5-4)
Punter: *Hunter Weigand (jr., 6-2, 145)
Returners: Chace Perkins, Talmadge
Long snapper: *O'Hearn
(*Denotes projected starter)