For the first time in Bruce Ward's six seasons as coach, the Gahanna Lincoln football team wasn't in position to either make the playoffs or win the league title entering its regular-season finale.

The Lions closed the season Nov. 1 with a 21-9 loss at Pickerington North to finish 3-7 overall and 3-2 in the OCC-Ohio Division.

Despite its final record, Ward liked the heart his team showed in winning three of its last four games.

"Our kids have fought all year," said Ward, who is 34-31 at Gahanna. "I know our record doesn't really show it, but we haven't gone into any game particularly outmatched. We just haven't played particularly well all season. Unfortunately for us, this was one of the few times in my career where we knew we were done (entering) Week 10, so our guys wanted to give it everything they had and they played their butts off."

The Lions lost their first six games, falling to teams that combined for a 48-12 regular-season record. Five of those opponents made the playoffs.

Gahanna posted its first win Oct. 11, beating Reynoldsburg 29-28. The Raiders went 7-3 in the regular season and made the Division I, Region 3 playoffs.

The next day, senior kicker and punter Kobie Stillwell and junior wide receiver JaShawn Scott were in an automobile accident in which Scott died and Stillwell sustained season-ending injuries.

Despite the tragedy, Gahanna beat Lancaster 28-25 on Oct. 18 and Grove City 41-7 on Oct. 25 and had a chance to earn second place in the OCC-Ohio entering its contest against North.

"We just had to buckle down and fight through as a team," junior linebacker Ricky Alli said. "I was pretty close to JaShawn and it was hard getting through that tough time. He was 17 and he wasn't supposed to go. We had to keep practicing and come out and try to win for him."

The Lions finished third in the league behind Pickerington Central (5-0) and North (4-1).

The OCC will undergo realignment before next season, with Gahanna, Grove City and Pickerington North remaining in the OCC-Ohio. They will be joined in the league by New Albany, Westerville Central and Westland.

The Lions lost to New Albany 41-17 on Sept. 20 and fell to Westerville Central 37-6 on Sept. 27 but had beaten both the Eagles and the Warhawks each of the previous three seasons.

Gahanna will be losing its top three playmakers in running back Travis Whittaker, quarterback Will Thomas and wide receiver Cam Morris to graduation.

Whittaker rushed for 1,197 yards and nine touchdowns on 213 carries and had 27 receptions for 239 yards and five scores, Thomas completed 130 of 252 passes for 1,691 yards with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions and rushed for three scores and Morris had a team-best 37 receptions for 570 yards and four touchdowns.

Whittaker and Thomas both were named first-team all-league and Morris was second-team all-league.

The offensive line is losing four seniors in Luke Baker, A'che Sanchez-Baccus, Albert Simpson and Josiah Smith. Sanchez-Baccus was first-team all-league and Baker made second team.

Thomas' backup, junior Trey Burger, missed much of the season with an injury. Burger and freshman Maxwell Cummings could be among those who battle to be the starting quarterback next year.

Alli, who rushed for 73 yards on 10 carries, is hoping he'll get a chance to be a key running back next season.

Sophomore Brendan Raymond had 12 receptions for 255 yards and five touchdowns, freshman Romearo Wells had 10 catches for 174 yards and two scores and sophomore Kane Baker had 10 receptions for 92 yards and one score.

Raymond was honorable mention all-league.

Junior Ron Blackman is another who could see a more prominent role at wide receiver.

Junior Dale Jones started the final six games at center and junior Tommy Bailey should be another key returnee on the offensive line.

Bailey was special mention all-league.

"We have some good talent coming back next year," Alli said.

Defensively, the biggest losses to graduation will be Mason Weber (72 tackles, 9 tackles for loss) and Whittaker at linebacker, Massimo Giuliani (5 tackles for loss), Grant Terry and Qwyn Williams (8 tackles for loss) on the line and Joey Butts, Khalil Johnson and Adrian Yates in the secondary.

Weber was first-team all-league and Johnson and Will-iams both made second team.

Alli and junior Mondra Curry, who had 50 tackles and 42 tackles, respectively, should be back at linebacker along with sophomore Tyree Johnson and freshman Jaden Yates.

Other expected returnees include junior Mykohl Martin on the line and Blackman in the secondary.

"Obviously, every year is a new year and will present its challenges," Ward said. "We've got some guys coming back, but we've also got some holes to fill with Will, Travis, A'che, Luke, Mason, Khalil ... we've just got to figure it out this offseason and get to work."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek