The rebuilding process that began when Brian Kennedy took over as Watterson football coach in 2017 continued to move forward this season.
The Eagles went 2-8 in his first season and won their final three games last year to finish 5-5. They continued the winning streak this season by starting out 4-0.
Consecutive losses to Dayton Chaminade Julienne (28-7 on Sept. 27) and DeSales (20-16 on Oct. 4), as well as a loss to Hartley (39-0 on Oct. 18), ultimately kept Watterson from making the Division III, Region 11 playoffs.
The Eagles finished 7-3 overall, marking their first winning season since 2015 and just their third winning season since winning the 2010 Division III state title. They went 1-2 in the CCL, beating St. Charles 17-3 on Nov. 1.
With all but nine players eligible to return, Watterson believes its ascent forward should continue next season.
"I'm extremely excited and already looking forward to next year," junior quarterback Jake Hoying said. "We'll have a ton of starters back and we have some really good younger guys that I think will make big improvements this offseason and that can make a big impact next year. ... I think we have the talent to make a deep run into the playoffs."
Of the five teams in Region 11 that posted seven wins, only two made the playoffs.
Watterson beat Division VII playoff-qualifier Maria Stein Marion Local 31-7 on Sept. 6, but its other wins came against teams that finished with losing records. Those six teams combined to go 17-42.
The Eagles will face eight of this year's opponents again next season, with Bellefontaine replacing Marion Local. Bellefontaine went 6-4 this season.
According to Kennedy, Watterson still needs to find a Week 7 opponent to replace Youngstown Ursuline, which the Eagles beat 35-34 on Oct. 11.
"We beat a one-win (Cuyahoga Falls) Walsh (Jesuit) team (24-21 on Sept. 13) and a (two-win) Ursuline team," Kennedy said. "The reality is that Region 11 is competitive."
Kennedy is hoping for a bigger freshman class next season to supplement what should be strong groups of juniors and seniors.
The expected return of Hoying, along with the entire receiving corps, is among the biggest reasons for optimism.
Hoying was 181-for-320 passing for 2,056 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions and rushed for two touchdowns.
Junior wide receivers Andrew Bettendorf (39 receptions, 536 yards, 3 TDs) and Tyler Young (39 receptions, 529 yards, 1 TD) and junior tight end Davis Boone (37 receptions, 455 yards, 6 TDs) provide depth to the passing game.
Junior Sam Intihar (14 receptions) and freshman Brandon Trout (12 receptions) are other receivers eligible to return.
On the offensive line, juniors Alex Altier, Patrick Jesse and Matthew Johnson should be among the top returnees.
Junior Cam Nickelson, who had 26 carries for 192 yards and a touchdown, was a part of the Eagles' running game that was led by senior Tommy Bair (140 carries, 692 yards, 7 TDs).
Defensively, Intihar had 56.5 tackles and four interceptions and Young had 42 tackles as part of a secondary that also included Bettendorf, junior Henry Blevins and sophomore Dominic Orsini.
Boone, juniors Tanner Mercer and Nick Youell and sophomore Brady White should return at linebacker.
The biggest losses on defense will be on the line, where senior Mason Graney (46 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss) led the way.
Watterson also will need a kicker to replace senior Jonah Fortkamp, who made seven of nine field goals and 25 extra points.
"Our team made huge improvements this year and all the coaches and players are proud to be a part of this team," Young said. "It was also very necessary to make these improvements if we wanted to bring back the legacy of Watterson football.
"I feel confident with tkhe players coming back next year. Yes, we're losing some key players, but our quarterback, all of our wide receivers and all of our defensive backs will be returning next year, which means, for the most part, we can just start where we left off. ... The future looks bright."