Coach Zebb Schroeder was disappointed after his third-seeded Olentangy Orange football team fell to second-seeded Pickerington Central 44-0 in a Division I, Region 3 semifinal Nov. 15 at Upper Arlington.
It wasn't so much the loss but the thought of not being around his players in the weight room or working with them at practice.
"The finality is always difficult," said Schroeder, who completed his sixth season. "One of the things that made our year so special was that it was so much fun to coach the kids. When you lose the last game that (part) ends, and that's what makes it so difficult.
"I told the kids that from Oct. 11 against Olentangy to this game, we played six consecutive games against playoff teams and we won five in a row before Pickerington Central. That means we pretty much played playoff games for the last six weeks. The kids have a lot to be proud of."
The Pioneers finished a program-best 10-2 overall, qualified for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season and won their first Division I playoff game with a 36-17 victory over sixth-seeded Pickerington North on Nov. 8. They won a Division II first-round game in 2009, 28-21 over Dresden Tri-Valley.
Orange won its second consecutive OCC-Buckeye Division championship, going 5-0 to finish ahead of runner-up Liberty (4-1).
"I thought it was a really good season, especially with having the (program's) best record," senior defensive back Reece Dunham said. "We all just bonded from freshman year. We all put in so much work in the weight room and with the early morning stuff on the field in the summer. We knew we could be elite, but there was more fuel to the fire because people didn't think we would be so good after losing so many seniors last year."
The Pioneers had a 21-player senior class led by linebacker Zach Hill, who was district Defensive Player of the Year and the league's co-Player of the Year with Westerville Central's Zeke Healy. Hill had a team-leading 78 tackles, including 11 for loss, and four sacks.
Senior quarterback Spencer Hawkins (first-team all-district and all-league) completed 139 of 263 passes for 1,854 yards with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. Dunham (first-team all-district and all-league) had 54 tackles and a team-leading seven interceptions.
Senior offensive lineman Najib Talukder was second-team all-district and first-team all-league along with senior tight end Sam Wyne, who caught 33 passes for 617 yards and eight scores.
Senior running back Jake Vanchieri (honorable mention all-district, first-team all-league) rushed for 1,065 yards and 11 touchdowns on 199 carries. Senior punter Jack Fenton (first-team all-league) had an average of 32.9 yards while placing 12 of his 52 attempts inside the 20-yard line.
Senior wide receiver Zane Lattig had a team-high 43 catches for 468 yards and one touchdown.
Senior offensive lineman Connor Mathena was special mention all-league, and senior fullback/linebacker Alex Lopez was honorable mention all-league.
Senior linebacker Evan Leist had 48 tackles and one interception, and senior linebacker Eli Payne had 42 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Senior defensive linemen Jared Pack (18.5 tackles, 1 fumble recovery) and Cardan Mutai (23 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries) also started.
"It's not the biggest senior class in numbers, but they were big in leadership, heart and energy," Schroeder said. "You can't replace the nucleus of that leadership.
"There will be a void in the day-to-day energy and practice habits, weight room mentality and so many little things behind the scenes that can move a team like us. It's not to be said that the underclassmen can't do it, but there is some work to be done."
Junior wide receiver Caden Konczak (second-team all-league) had 39 receptions for a team-leading 584 yards and six touchdowns. Sophomore kicker Jack Behre (honorable mention all-district, first-team all-league) was 10-for-15 on field goals and 32-for-34 on extra points.
Junior defensive back Joey Guagenti (honorable mention all-district, second-team all-league) had 38 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, and junior defensive back Josh Laisure (second-team all-league) had 49.5 tackles and two interceptions.
Juniors Luke Applegate (77 carries, 324 yards, 3 TDs) and Henry Groce (22 carries, 121 yards) are expected to return at running back, and Laisure and sophomore Jake Werling will be in the mix to start at quarterback.
Juniors Tanner Lester, Ryan Minott and Dominic Sylvesteri are expected to return on the offensive line. Defensively, juniors Jadon Ampadu (LB; 38 tackles, 2 interceptions), Dylan Dempsey (DL; 23 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions), Luke Houston (LB; 22.5 tackles) and Colin McNay (DB; 27 tackles, 1 interception) all are expected back.