In football — and life in general — experience matters.
The Olentangy Berlin football team had next to none of it when the program kicked off its inaugural season a few years ago … and it showed.
The Bears finished 1-9 overall and 0-7 in their conference in 2018. The experienced gained from that initial foray into varsity football paid dividends last fall, though, as Berlin finished 6-5 (5-2 in league play) and made the OHSAA playoffs in just its second year in existence.
Just for context, there are teams scattered across the state that’ve been playing for decades and are still waiting for that first playoff berth.
Anyway, back to the point: experience matters.
Fortunately for the Bears, despite graduating their first senior class, they have plenty of experienced players back in the fold this year — five on the offensive line alone as seniors Cole Troyer, Antonio Alonso, Andrew Cline and juniors Bryce Young and Jon Harder, who already has an offer from Toledo, all return.
They’ll be a big part of the offense this season … literally and figuratively as they weigh an average of 253 pounds.
“Cole is a three-year starter at left tackle,” Berlin coach Mark Nori said. “He’s the leader of the offensive line and has great awareness and understanding of the position.
“Antonio is a hard hat and lunch bucket guy who goes both ways and is an incredibly hard worker, Bryce will orchestrate the calls and anchor the interior part of the line at center, Jon is still growing and maturing into his own at right tackle and Andrew was instrumental last year as a right and left guard. He’s very smart and understands offensive line play and schemes.”
Quarterback Jacob Moeller is also back after starting each of the last two seasons.
“Jacob has greatly matured in decision making and becoming a student of the game,” Nori said.
One of his toughest decisions will be who to throw the ball to as Berlin returns more than a few steady receivers in seniors Justin Radar and Liam McGreevey and juniors Bennett Lawrence, Connor Gavin, Connor Pethtel and Trey Keith. Junior fullback Ethan Lee and junior running back Nick Tiberio are also back to pad the Bears’ stable of playmakers.
Most of the guys back on the offensive side of the ball can and will contribute on defense as well. That versatility is another plus, Nori said, as Alonso will contribute on the line, Lawrence, Keith and McGreevey provide playmaking ability in the secondary and Tiberio and Lee add depth at linebacker.
Junior lineman Austin Burchinal and senior linebacker Nick Pettograsso are also back on the defensive side of the ball.
The Bears lost a few standouts from last year’s squad — Jacob Bell (Ball State) was one of the best kickers in the area, running back Johnny Spinner (John Carroll) was a key performer, linebackers Jake Hill (Naval Academy), Trevor Scott and Izzy Foston and receiver Corey Hill all leave big shoes to fill, but Berlin has the players to fill them, Nori said.
“I think the strength of this team is our overall experience,” he said. “We have key returners who have been with the program since its inception. There is a better understanding of what’s expected of them and what we can expect from them. They have great knowledge of our offense, defense and special teams, which is a big asset.”
The Bears have depth as well, with several newcomers — guys like seniors Aiden Loeffler (wide receiver/defensive back), Ryan Hortsman (wide receiver/defensive back) and Kyle Scollo (wide receiver) and juniors Jason Harris (defensive back), Gavin Angell (running back/defensive back) and Kyler Heitzenrader (offensive line/defensive line) ready to step up.
“Jason has good instinct, speed and athleticism and can cover a lot of ground,” Nori said. “Aiden is tall and rangy and has good football knowledge, Gavin is a scat back kind of player who is extremely smart and hard working, Kyler works hard and is always available when we need him, Ryan brings unique athleticism and football knowledge and Kyle has become a better athlete both mentally and physically.”
This season was going to look a little different for Berlin even before the coronavirus pandemic as it made the move from the Cardinal to the Capital Division in the most recent OCC realignment. The threat of COVID-19, though, changed things even more as the OHSAA shaved off a few regular season games and determined it would allow all of its member schools to participate in the playoffs.
That said, the Bears have just six regular season games on the schedule, starting with sister school Olentangy Liberty coming to Berlin for the opener Aug. 28. They get Olentangy on the road after that in what will be the first league game of the year before taking on visiting Hilliard Darby (Sept. 11), host Dublin Jerome (Sept. 18), visiting Marysville (Sept. 25) and host Thomas Worthington (Oct. 2).
“You can go so many different ways with conference and scheduling,” Nori said. “We have very good opponents every week and we will be tested the entire season. Our competition is well coached and as everyone knows, there is great talent in Central Ohio so each team will present different issues for us weekly. We respect all of our opponents, which is why we look forward to playing them.”