The Hilliard Darby football team won its final four games, but fell short in its bid for a third consecutive playoff appearance.
The Panthers lost to Olentangy Berlin 16-12 on Oct. 4 before running off wins over Thomas Worthington (35-7 on Oct. 11), Worthington Kilbourne (38-0 on Oct. 18), Delaware (24-6 on Oct. 25) and Dublin Scioto (35-14 on Nov. 1) to finish 7-3 overall and 5-2 in the OCC-Cardinal Division.
"I felt like we were peaking," coach John Santagata said. "I thought we struggled earlier (in the season) with team chemistry. After the Berlin game, our team chemistry went through the roof."
Darby finished ninth (18.996) in the Division I, Region 3 computer ratings, finishing less than a point behind the eighth and final playoff qualifier, Westerville Central (19.85).
"It's a shame we didn't get in," Santagata said. "I guess we lost three games, so it is what it is. But I'm really happy, not only that we won (the final four games), but with how we played down the stretch."
The Panthers tied Berlin for second in the OCC-Cardinal behind Dublin Jerome (6-1).
"I think after the Berlin game, something changed among the brotherhood of the team," senior running back and defensive back Evan Grose said. "Although we fell short of the playoffs, I couldn't be more proud of the way we unified and played our hardest until the very last whistle."
Grose ran for 178 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against Scioto and finished third on the team with 428 yards rushing.
Other key seniors were Alex Briggs (RB/LB), Jacob Davidson (OL/DL, Creed Galko (TE/DL), Griffin Hart (WR/DB), Scott Hartline (OL/DL), Carter Hornish (OL/DL) Ryan Morbitzer (WR/DB), Geno Sekura (WR/LB) and Jack Stultz (QB).
Stultz rushed for 801 yards and seven touchdowns and was 21-for-44 passing for 319 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions.
Hartline and Sekura were named first-team all-league and Briggs, Galko and Stubbs made the second team. Hart was special mention all-league and Morbitzer was honorable mention all-league.
Leading the expected returnees is junior Connor Jones (RB/LB/P), who was named OCC-Cardinal Defensive Player of the Year after recording 95 tackles and four interceptions, including three that were returned for touchdowns.
Jones also led the team with 806 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns on 130 carries and averaged 32.5 yards per punt with eight of his 25 punts being downed inside the 20.
Other key returnees include juniors Blayne Barnes (TE/DL), Sam Donnelly (OL/DL), Kole Kendall (OL/DL), Jacob Neri (OL/DL) and Bradley Weaver (DE), sophomores Blake Horvath (QB/DB) and Matthew Sech (WR/DB) and freshman Benjamin Marsh (FB/LB).
Barnes was second-team all-league.
"We had some young guys step up," Grose said. "(Marsh) was one of the only freshmen to play varsity and have a lot of (playing) time. Of course, Connor Jones played as hard as he could for the seniors. He's a completely selfless individual who has a lot of talent. Blake Horvath is a versatile player. I'm looking forward to seeing him do big things as well."