The Olentangy Orange football team’s been consistent each of the last three years, averaging seven-plus wins and making the playoffs all three times.
It’s been a successful stretch for sure — a period punctuated by last year’s league crown (a title the Pioneers shared with Olentangy and Olentangy Liberty).
“I was really proud of our guys last year and their ability to overcome some early-season adversity and capitalize on our strengths,” Orange coach Zebb Schroeder said. “Our team owned up to winning with their strengths — running the football at a high level, not having unforced errors, making teams earn everything they got and playing exceptional on special teams. When we did those things, we experienced some great performances.”
It’s certainly been a blueprint for success, regardless of the guys making the plays. The Pioneers have done it with a different quarterback each year … and this fall, should the trend continue, will be no exception.
Spencer Hawkins, the fourth senior in the last four years to start at quarterback, will take over for Robbie Dayhuff behind center.
Dayhuff was the team’s leading passer (78-for-139 for 1,049 yards and 11 touchdowns) and rusher (131 carries for 712 yards and seven scores) in 2018. Hawkins, though, has the tools to pick up right where Dayhuff left off.
“He’s a senior and has waited his turn to command the offense,” Schroeder said. “He knows what we’re doing inside and out and has really embraced his role as the leader of the offense. He’s a big, strong-armed kid who is very intelligent. His goals are to be consistent and protect the football. If he can do that, I expect a really great season from him.”
He’ll have plenty of options to throw to, which is something Schroeder wants to see more of this year.
“We would like to spread the field a little more in 2019 and be a little more diverse offensively, but we have to really run and create separation on the perimeter to do so,” he said.
Zane Lattig, Sam Wyne, Caden Konczak and Jack Fenton all return as top pass targets while Jake Vanchieri, Hank Groce and Luke Applegate — three running backs each with different running styles — will anchor the ground game. Vanchieri, a returning starter, rushed for 655 yards and six touchdowns last fall.
Tight end Rico Franklin and running back Luke Houston, both sophomores, add dept at the skill positions while junior Ryan Minott and senior Josh Young will contribute on the line.
Schroeder expects continued success on the defensive side of the ball as well, even though all-everything lineman Zach Harrison (currently at Ohio State) won’t be creating chaos on the edge.
“The biggest void Zach leaves would be his positive energy and leadership,” the coach said. “He was so good at bringing people up and making others better. Obviously, we are going to miss some of the physical dominance he provided, but, to be honest, so much of our defensive plays last year were run away from him so we had to have guys step up with their play on that side of the ball.”
Cardan Mutai, Tyler Yanka, Jared Pack, Alex Lopez and Dylan Dempsey are all poised to pick up their production with Harrison playing at the next level.
“I’m really excited about our new defensive line,” Schroeder said. “They are eager, disciplined and tough. In the back end, we have a lot of kids who played football for us last year (corners Reece Dunham and Joey Guagenti, free safety Josh Laisure, strong safety Colin McNay and linebackers Eli Payne, Zach Hill, Evan Leist, Jayden Ampadu and Jack Almond).”
Orange opens the season Aug. 30 against host Worthington Kilbourne at 7 p.m. After that, it gets Hilliard Bradley (Sept. 6) and Pickerington North (Sept. 13) — two of the better teams in the area — in back-to-back weeks at home.
“I believe it’s important for us to take the next step as a program,” Schroeder said. “We need to continue to challenge ourselves early in the season to play the best folks in Central Ohio.”
The road to another OCC championship and trip to the state playoffs won’t be easy, it never is, but Schroeder said his group has a chance if it does a few key things.
“We need to play like the ball is the program on offense — playing turnover free,” he said. “We also need to get the ball in the hands of several athletes on offense and keep fresh legs, control pad level on both lines as we won’t be the biggest team around and create turnovers on defense with an experienced back eight.”
Couple those things with the winning culture the team’s maintained over the last handful of seasons and it could be a special fall in Lewis Center.
“The player vibe and culture is tremendous,” Schroeder said. “We really have a chance to overachieve if these kids continue to be a strong family in the locker room.”