As good as 2017 was to the Barons — a year in which they went 7-3 overall and a perfect 5-0 at home — Buckeye Valley football coach Matt Stephens knows it could have been better.
It can always be better.
“You look at the Hayes game (21-17 loss in Week 1) … that was a game we fumbled on the six-yard line going in to win,” he said. “Then, you look at the Clear Fork game (23-20 loss in Week 5) … they run their field goal team out with no timeouts left and kick one as the clock strikes zero. Kudos to them, but we gave ourselves an opportunity to win and couldn’t come through.”
Finishing has certainly been a focal point for BV this offseason, and not just because of the outcomes against the Pacers and Colts. Two of the team’s best finishers from a year ago — all-everything running back Trent Davies and receiver Joey Verdes — graduated.
“They were an integral part of what we were doing,” Stephens said. “When we weren’t giving the ball to Davies, we were throwing it to Verdes. They’re both all-state guys, so filling those voids is not something that will be easily done.”
Davies led the Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference with more than 1,500 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. Verdes, meanwhile, was one of the league’s top receivers with 49 grabs for nearly 700 yards and four TDs.
Fortunately for Stephens and Co., last year’s top MOAC quarterback in terms of passing yards (1,652) and touchdowns (14), Grant Owens, is back and ready for his senior season.
“Grant has looked good,” Stephens said. “I think the experience he gained last year was huge as it’s more mental growth than anything — a better understanding — and he had a pretty good understanding of the offense to begin with.
“Grant came off the field in the second half of the season a couple times and said, ‘hey, why don’t we run this to the back side in this formation.’ I remember we (the coaches) looked at each other and said, ‘that’s a pretty smart move.’”
As far as the guys behind him, those looking to pick up where Davies left off, Stephens said seniors Zach Garber, Paul Staley and Duncan Faulk are all likely to see time.
“Garber looks to be our No. 1, but who knows who will get the most snaps,” he said. “Staley and Faulk … Staley will also start on defense, so maybe it will be the guy who is the least tired.
“Garber and Staley are grinders and Faulk is a little faster and has good hands out of the backfield.”
The offensive line will again be anchored by junior center Rance Wycoff, who lettered as a freshman and started on both sides of the ball last year as a sophomore.
Next to him, the Barons will have senior tackle Jack McKean and Wyatt McGraw. McKean started all 10 games last year while McGraw will make the move to offense after playing most of his snaps on the defense last fall.
Junior Nick Fein, a first-year starter, and senior Jake Diley will round out the line at the guard positions.
“I like the fact I have two experienced tackles,” Stephens said of the line. “There is some experience there, and I like their length. They aren’t slow and un-athletic. These kids can move.”
Other key offensive components include junior Beau Ewing, who will slide over to Verdes’ position after serving time as the other slot guy last season, and senior Matt Pentacost, who will provide a big target (6-2, 205) and join Owens as a team captain.
Defensively, Stephens said the Barons will be buoyed by linebackers Lathan McGraw and Will Weinberg.
“Lathan has good size and can run,” he said. “Will is a sophomore who got injured early on last season, but lettered because he was such a solid special teams player. They’re kind of the heart. Our free safety, Anthony Hughes, has done a really nice job so far this camp as well.”
BV’s young on defense, but, at least in practice and 7-on-7 drills, has made up for it with competitiveness.
“We’re going to go after the ball again,” Stephens said. “We’ll be young, especially in the secondary, but I think they’re going to be up to the challenge. They’ve looked good in 7-on-7 — and I know that’s not football — but if you can defend in that scinerio, when the quarterback has all that time, that should give them some confidence to go out and do it with the pads on.”
The Barons open the season next Friday against Delaware Hayes. The game, which is slated to get underway at 7 p.m., will be played at Ohio Wesleyan University’s Selby Stadium.
After that, BV hits the road for three straight, including a stop in Sunbury to take on Big Walnut in Week 2. In other words, Buckeye Valley, which was undefeated at home last season, doesn’t play a home game this time around until Week 5.
“That’s kinda interesting,” Stephens said. “We were really good at home last year, too. It’s some of my own doing, though. The Hayes game was going to be at home, but I think we kinda outgrew our facility for that game and we think Ohio Wesleyan is going to be a great venue.”
When the Barons finally do get to play in front of the home crowd, they’ll be doing it against last year’s defending MOAC champion Clear Fork Sept. 21.
“I can see the MOAC playing out similar to last year, but if I had to pick a sleeper it would be Marion Harding (which Buckeye Valley plays Oct. 12 on the road),” Stephens said. “I think they have some all-conference players back … and I know Clear Fork has a core of kids back as well. Pleasant will always be in the picture as well and I’m hoping BV will be in the conversation, too.”