Losing three of its first four games wasn't what the Pickerington North football team had in mind to begin this season.
The Panthers, however, followed with a 29-27 win over then-unbeaten Dublin Coffman on Sept. 27 and opened OCC-Ohio Division play with a 21-16 win over then-undefeated Reynoldsburg on Oct. 4.
Those victories set North on a path to the playoffs for the sixth time in program history and third time in four seasons.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, their postseason was short-lived, as they lost to third-seeded Olentangy Orange 36-17 in the first round of the Division I, Region 3 playoffs Nov. 8 on the road.
The sixth-seeded Panthers, who had won five of their final six regular-season games, had beaten the host Pioneers 38-17 on Sept. 13.
North finished 6-5 overall and went 4-1 in the OCC-Ohio Division to place second behind Pickerington Central (5-0).
"(Making the playoffs) definitely means a lot to me with it being my senior year," linebacker Lawson Vaughn said. "We missed it last year and we worked hard but came up short, so it's definitely nice to make it on my last go-round."
In the rematch with Orange, junior quarterback and defensive end Jack Sawyer left early in the second quarter with a torn MCL in his left knee.
Freshman running back Dawaun Green scored on a 1-yard run to get North to within 9-7 midway through the second quarter but the Pioneers stretched their lead to 23-7 by halftime.
Senior Dom Myers, who began the season as the Panthers' starting quarterback before Sawyer took over the role full-time in the first matchup with the Pioneers, was 12-for-21 passing for 105 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions and rushed 16 times for 58 yards.
"Luckily, Dom has experience at quarterback," coach Nate Hillerich said. "We knew going into this game that we can't turn the ball over and they made some big plays on us. We played a terrible first half but were only down 16 and our kids came out (in the second half) and fought. A lot of teams might have packed it in, but we were in the fourth quarter down six (points) inside (the 50-yard line) and had a chance to score and a chance to win."
The Panthers are losing 19 seniors, led by first-team all-league honorees Chris Scott (WR/DB/P), Javontae Robinson (RB/LB) and Wyatt Stoddard (OL/DL) and second-team all-league honorees Vaughn, Josiah Williams (WR/DB), Colby Baker (DB) and Tanner Pope (K).
Senior Trent Robinson (OL/DL) was special mention all-league and senior Tyce Neu (OL/DL) was honorable mention.
Scott was one of the area's leading receivers with 66 catches for 963 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Myers completed 68 of 117 passes for 650 yards with four touchdowns and had a rushing touchdown.
Most of the team's other skill-position players are set to return next season.
Sawyer, who was named OCC-Ohio Defensive Player of the Year, completed 79 of 135 passes for 1,056 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions and rushed 80 times for 386 yards and six scores. He also had 10 catches for 96 yards.
Junior running back Idris Lawrence, who was second-team all-league, had 172 carries for 642 yards and seven touchdowns and was the team's second-leading receiver with 24 catches for 237 yards and one score.
Green, who filled in late in the regular season when Lawrence missed time because of injury, rushed for 310 yards and three touchdowns on 54 carries.
Junior D.J. Davenport (OL/DL) was another first-team all-league honoree.
Junior wide receiver Hayden Kaltenecker had 15 receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown and junior wide receiver Jordan Lowery had 15 catches for 116 yards.
Juniors Zach Addie, Tyce Neu and Evan Papali are others eligible to return on the offensive line.
Pope made seven of nine field-goal attempts and 30 of 32 extra-point attempts and split the punting duties with Scott and Myers.
Defensively, the biggest losses to graduation will be Javontae Robinson (80 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss) at linebacker, Vaughn (61 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) on the line and Colby Baker (53 tackles, 10 tackles for loss), Nene Uba (37 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups), Josiah Williams (36 tackles, 3 pass breakups, 2 interceptions), Myers (25 tackles) and Scott (7 pass breakups, 2 interceptions) in the secondary.
Sawyer, who had 37 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks, should lead the defense next season.
Junior linebacker Cole Johnson had 30 tackles, three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, junior defensive end Elijah Hawk had 23 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and four pass breakups and junior defensive back Devin McShan added 22 tackles and five pass breakups.
Sophomore linebacker Jon Lipscomb is another eligible to return on defense and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.
"(The seniors were a) special group," Hillerich said. "They made the playoffs in three out of four years. We were 1-3 and everybody was counting us out. We had a ton of adversity. They were battle-tested, with seven playoff teams on our schedule. Every non-league team we played made the playoffs. I'm just proud of them.
"When we were 1-3, we had to change our identity and change who we were. We had a physical offensive and defensive line. We had a couple guys having to go both ways so we wanted to slow down and huddle up on offense, which I've never been a guy who huddles, but I think we knew we could be more physical than teams."