The Delaware Hayes football program has been making steady strides in recent years, improving upon 2014’s three-win season with a 5-5 mark last fall.

The upward trend isn’t an accident, either. The Pacers have gotten bigger, stronger, faster and just plain better since third-year coach Mike Golden and his crew stepped onto the scene and, based on what the coaches say they’ve seen out of their stable of playmakers this offseason, the momentum should only continue to build.

“They’ve been very committed,” Golden said. “They’ve made a lot of strength gains in the offseason and the kids are buying into what we’re doing.”

Physically, Hayes is prepared for the bright lights of Friday nights. To reach their full potential, though, the Pacers have to believe.

“We have to believe in ourselves,” Golden said. “The kids have to believe in the work they’ve done in the offseason. They have to believe they’ve worked as hard as any of the best teams in Central Ohio … and I know they have because I’ve coached some of the best teams in Central Ohio.”

Schematically, Hayes will look a lot like it has in recent years, running the hybrid Wing-T offense fans and opponents have gotten used to.

The guy running the show will look familiar too, as three-year starter Cullen Moore returns at quarterback.

“Cullen dedicated himself in the offseason and has become a really strong young man,” Golden said. “He’s the strongest quarterback I’ve ever coached, and he has a real good arm. He’s always a threat to run the ball too.”

Moore, a senior, led Hayes in both passing and rushing last season. He completed 38 of his 118 passes for 635 yards and three touchdowns while adding another 831 yards and 11 TDs on the ground.

The rest of the Pacers’ skill position players aren’t quite as seasoned, but what they lack in experience, they make up with speed.

“(Senior) Deven Ward, the 100-meter champ in the OCC (track), had a bit of an ankle problem last year, but is back and ready to go,” Golden said. “We expect big things. He’s another kid who made a commitment to get stronger.

“(Senior) Derrick O’Connor will be our fullback. Between him and Deven, we have some real good speed in the backfield … real good speed.”

They’ll likely have some holes to run through too, as the Pacers return all five of their starting offensive linemen.

“From trackle to tackle, they’re all back,” Golden said. “That’s huge. They have experience playing next to each other that you just can’t teach.”

Seniors Nate Wilgus and Josh McSweeney will return at the two tackles, juniors Glenn Pauley and Kole Shaw are back at the guard spots and senior Mason Davis will be back at center.

The Pacers lost their top three receivers — Josh Hyatt, Ethan Tucky and Noah Watts — to graduation, but senior Derrick Buford is ready to step up after missing most of last season due to injury.

“Derrick missed a lot of time with a shoulder (injury), but has had an outstanding summer,” Golden said. “He can make all the catches and I know he’s a guy Cullen is very comfortable with.”

Buford played in just one game last season, but had a pair of grabs for 52 yards and a touchdown.

On the defensive side of the ball, senior Stanley Sorn and junior Braden Donges return to anchor the line. Senior Grant Conahan, one of last year’s leading tacklers, and senior Max Hendrix are back at linebacker and seniors Anthony Rodgers (safety) and Miles Roberts (cornerback) return to add experience to the secondary.

Overall, Golden said his defense’s strength is its strength … literally.

“Physical strength is key,” he said. “And the kids have done a really good job addressing that this offseason.”

The strength will undoubtedly come in handy as the Pacers enter a new league, the OCC-Cardinal Division, courtesy of the OCC’s most recent realignment.

Hayes finished 3-4 in the OCC-Capital Division last fall, good enough for fourth in the league. It beat Orange, Mount Vernon and Franklin Heights in consecutive weeks while falling to conference champ Olentangy, Worthington Kilbourne, New Albany and Big Walnut.

Just one of those teams will join Hayes in the new OCC-Cardinal. After opening the season with four non-league games, the Pacers will start league play against host Dublin Scioto Sept. 23 before heading home to take on Kilbourne, the lone familiar foe, and Dublin Jerome. They’ll then hit the road to take on Thomas Worthington before hosting Hilliard Darby and traveling to Hilliard Bradley to close out the regular season.

“We’re going to be going up against some really solid teams,” Golden said, “but we played tough teams last year. I think people read too much into things when it comes to realignment. It will be a challenge, but no more of a challenge than last year.”

The Pacers open the season against rival Buckeye Valley today at BV. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

The 2016 Delaware Hayes varsity football team. 2016 Delaware Hayes varsity football team.

By Ben Stroup

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Reach Ben Stroup at 740-413-0905 or on Twitter @delgazette_ben.