The Olentangy Orange football team made the jump from one of the best teams in its league to the best team in its league last fall, finishing a perfect 5-0 in the OCC-Buckeye Division on the way to a 10-2 season.
This year, though, the Pioneers have a whole new league to conquer — the OCC-Central Division — and it’s arguably the toughest you’ll find in Central Ohio.
Not only do they still have Olentangy Liberty to deal with, but now teams like Dublin Coffman, Hilliard Bradley, Hilliard Davidson and Upper Arlington fill out their schedule.
“We play six straight playoff teams before we even get to the playoffs,” Orange coach Zebb Schroeder said. “So, staying healthy is going to be critical this season. The run of games we have will make us better and will be exciting from a competitive standpoint, but it’s going to be a brutal slugfest from start to finish. We’re going to have to make sure our kids stay fresh, mentally and physically.”
Staying fresh will be easier said than done, especially this year, as the prospect of playing amid the coronavirus pandemic adds some new wrinkles to the whole staying healthy thing.
“It has been an adjustment for sure,” Schroeder said. “But, this year is all about these kids and making sure that they can play ball; especially our senior players. We’ve adjusted all summer long with small groups, more individualized workouts and, obviously, many safety precautions that have become our new norm for now.
“We’ve had to adjust things … we really try not to go inside for anything. So, we’ve been doing film and walk-thrus outside to try to take any precaution we can.”
It’s worked so far as the Pioneers are healthy and poised to build on their recent string of success.
They have the pieces to play with the heavyweights in their division, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
The entire defensive line is back as Dylan Dempsey, Tyler Yanka and Tanner Lester return for their senior seasons.
“They are a gritty group,” Schroeder said. “Dylan is a tough player, a wrestler, who is a very good pass-rush kid who gets turnovers. Tyler is an inside player who does a lot of the dirty work and Tanner is a strong, talented player as well. He’s a three-year starter for us and one of the better linemen we’ve had.”
At the next level, Orange returns linebackers Colin McNay, Jadon Ampadu, Luke Houston and Luke Brandt. Houston is the lone junior of the group. The other three are seniors.
“Colin loves football and loves this program,” Schroeder said. “He’s a consummate leader for us … and a great tackler in space. Jadon creates turnovers and packs a punch, Luke (Houston) started as a sophomore and has put on 20 pounds in the offseason and Luke (Brandt) is a physical player and a student of the game.”
Senior Joey Guagenti, a three-year starter, is also back to provide leadership in the secondary.
“Defensively, we are strong through our core,” Schroeder said. “Our line, linebackers and free safety (Guagenti) have lots of experience, football IQ and toughness.”
The offense returns plenty of experience as well. Senior linemen Ryan Minott and Dominic Silvestri will hold down the fort up front, senior receivers Caden Konczak and Julian Disabato will look to make plays on the perimeter and running back Luke Applegate returns to the fold as well.
“Ryan, a student of the game, really added a lot of strength in the offseason,” Schroeder said. “Dominic competes hard in the trenches, Caden is a big-time playmaker and excellent route runner, Julian has excellent hands and ball skills and Luke is a really big and fast kid … he should have a big year.”
Josh Laisure, who started at free safety last year, is the font-runner to start at quarterback, the coach said, but fellow seniors Logan Shearer, Ryan Swiger and junior Jake Werling aren’t far behind.
Jack Behre, who made nine field goals last fall, will return as the kicker.
Other players Schroeder said could contribute this season include seniors Antonio Mitchell (defensive line), Isaiah Wilder (defensive back), Joey Dimeo (outside linebacker) and Aidan MacDonald (offensive line); and juniors Rico Franklin (defensive lineman/tight end), Jordan Rudolph (wide receiver/defensive back), Connor Kemmerling (offensive line), Isaac Campbell (outside linebacker), Andre Robinson (wide receiver/defensive back) and Junior Sarpong (wide receiver/defensive back).
Schroeder said the most important thing this year is to stay healthy … something that’s at the top of every team’s list of priorities. Beyond that, this year’s all about building depth and winning the turnover battle.
“We have to stay healthy first and foremost,” Schroeder said. “Secondly, we have to make sure we build depth from some of our younger guys and get them ready to play. Thirdly, like last year, we have to be a very tough, disciplined football team. We finished plus 15 in the turnover margin last year and it equated to 10 wins and a conference title.
“We have to continue down that path and be a tough out for people.”