As Matthew Christ begins his third season as coach at Westerville South, he continues to promote a positive culture.
The Wildcats are looking to improve on a 7-13 overall record in his first two seasons, while finishing 1-4 both years in the OCC-Buckeye Division.
"These are guys who have now been with us since (their) sophomore year," Christ said. "They've been coached by us consistently now, and from a senior class standpoint this is probably our most complete group in terms of guys who have bought into the culture we're trying to create and develop. They've played a key part in that and extending where we want to go."
South opens Aug. 30 at New Albany looking to avenge last season's 31-7 home loss to the Eagles.
"We have to have some success early on," Christ said. "We're pretty young again, but we have a lot of guys who played varsity football last year, especially in the second half of the year. We have to win some of those tight games, those coin-flip games. It's been a big point of emphasis for us."
The Wildcats begin league play Oct. 4 against visiting Olentangy Liberty, a Division I state semifinalist a year ago.
Last season, South finished fifth behind tri-champions Olentangy, Liberty and Olentangy Orange, which each finished 4-1.
The Wildcats defeated Westerville North 23-13 for their league win a year ago, and they play host to North on Oct. 17. South also visits Westerville Central on Oct. 25.
"We're light years ahead of where we were two years ago," Christ said. "Part of that is it's the third year of doing things. Part of it is we're much more efficient in how we practice and install."
South lost several key players to graduation, including Ta'Veon Falls, who led the team in rushing with 893 yards and five touchdowns on 170 carries. He was named first-team all-league and special mention all-district in Division II.
Linebacker Manny Powell had a team-high 91 tackles and was first-team all-district, second-team all-league and third-team all-state.
Junior Peter Pedrozo returns at quarterback in South's spread offense.
After taking over as the starter in the second half of last season, Pedrozo completed 54 of 105 passes for 691 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions.
Senior Michael Mansaray should be the featured tailback. Last season, he rushed for 272 yards and three touchdowns and added 203 yards receiving and one score. He was first-team all-league and special mention all-district.
Senior Aaron Gore also will see time in the backfield.
Sophomore wide receiver Kaden Saunders, who had 229 yards and three touchdowns receiving and 203 yards and one touchdown rushing, was honorable mention all-league.
"He's obviously really fast, so the more sound he is technically the better he's going to be," Christ said.
Other key receivers are senior Jaelon Gordon, juniors Matthew Bame and Jesse DeVore and sophomore Javi'er Wills.
Seniors Justin Roberts and Kendry Santos and juniors Devin Oteng-Achamfour and Elvis Gyabeng are tight ends.
Senior Pat Peterson should anchor the offensive line at right tackle. Last season, he was second-team all-league.
"Mansaray and Peterson are both going to be three-year starters," Christ said. "They're going to have to carry the heavy load on both sides of the ball."
Senior Brendan Cleaver will play right guard, while senior Logan Balla and junior Ethan Gray are competing for time at left tackle.
Juniors Cole Holbrook and John Wells and sophomore Tyler O'Reilly competed for the starting center assignment in the preseason, with all three also expected to see time at guard.
"The offense is looking amazing," Mansaray said. "I love it. My big guys, Pat Peterson. We have Cole. We have Brendan Cleaver. We have John. We have Tyler. All of them are working hard. I believe in them and they believe in me. We're just going to keep on complementing each other. Our receiving core is all solid."
Peterson also will play a key role at defensive end in the team's base odd-man front scheme. He had 29.5 tackles last season.
"It's been four years, it's been a long ride, but I'm happy for the senior season and I'm ready to get rolling," Peterson said. "This program has changed tremendously."
Gyabeng should start at the other end.
Santos will be at nose guard and Cleaver will play nose guard and end.
Seniors Eman Alfred and Jake Llaneza and junior Brayden White will play outside linebacker and Mansaray, Oteng-Achamfour, Roberts and junior Zane Boszor will be at inside linebacker
The secondary should feature Gordon, Wills and senior Tom Ray at safety and Gore, Saunders and sophomore Brandon Armstrong at cornerback.
Bame returns as the kicker, with White handling the punting duties.
Saunders is the team's top return threat.
South is looking to replace long snapper Jude Pedrozo, who is playing the position at Michigan State. He was second-team all-league last season.
Peter Pedrozo, the younger brother of Jude, and sophomore Karson Lane shared time at the position in the preseason.
Quarterbacks: *Peter Pedrozo (jr., 5-11, 165), Brayden White (jr., 6-2, 190)
Running backs: *Michael Mansaray (sr., 5-10, 190), Aaron Gore (sr., 5-9, 175)
Receivers: *Kaden Saunders (so., 6-0, 160), *Jesse DeVore (jr., 6-1, 180), *Javi'er Wills (so., 6-1, 185), Matthew Bame (jr., 6-2, 190), Jaelon Gordon (sr., 5-9, 150)
Tight ends: *Elvis Gyabeng (jr., 5-11, 230), *Justin Roberts (sr., 6-2, 215), Kendry Santos (sr., 6-2, 205), Devin Oteng-Achamfour (jr., 5-1, 210)
Linemen: *Brendan Cleaver (sr., 5-11, 245), *Ethan Gray (jr., 6-1, 230), *Cole Holbrook (jr., 6-1, 240), *Tyler O'Reilly (so., 6-2, 225), *Patrick Peterson (sr., 6-3, 257), Logan Balla (sr., 6-2, 215), John Wells (jr., 5-9, 190)
Linemen: *Peterson, *Santos, *Gyabeng, Clever, Wells
Linebackers: *Eman Alfred (sr., 5-11, 180), *Jake Llaneza (sr., 6-1, 190), *Roberts, Zane Boszor (jr., 5-10, 190), Mansaray, Oteng-Achamfour, White
Secondary: *Gordon, Brandon Armstrong (so., 5-8, 155), En-Brass Fofanah (jr., 5-8, 145), Gore, Tom Ray (sr., 5-9, 150), Saunders, Wills
Long snappers: Karson Lane (so., 5-10, 165), Pedrozo
(*Denotes projected starter)