Coach: Ken Winters, third year
2017 record: 12-1 overall, 7-0 TRAC
Top players: Seniors Cavon Butler, 6-foot-3, 288 pounds, DE; PaSean Wimberly, 5-9, 165, DB; Keon Gatlin, 6-2, 300, OL; Kobe Myers, 5-10, 210, RB. Juniors Riley Keller, 6-1, 210, QB; Zach Walling, 6-4, 200, WR; Romelle Grier, 6-2, 258, DT.
Outlook: The Panthers look to match or improve on last year’s performance, which included their first TRAC title since their Division I state runner-up finish in 2012 and a trip to a regional final after two thrilling playoff wins.
The 90-player roster includes 23 seniors, 14 returning letterwinners, and six starters back on each side of the ball. With heavily recruited college prospect Keller running Whitmer’s potent spread offense for the third year, and Kentucky commit Butler anchoring the interior of a solid 4-3 defense, Winters’ team appears poised for another successful run.
A big offensive line should help Keller, a first-team All-TRAC performer, operate and clear running lanes for Myers, a third-year starter who rushed for 776 yards during the regular season. A significant concern is the kicking game, which was a strength in 2017 before the graduation of kicker Eric Filby and punter Austin Long.
A current crop of taller, athletic receivers should increase Keller’s aerial output and create better balance for an offense that averaged 34.3 points per game in 2017. The landmark win of the season came Sept. 29 at Central Catholic, when the Panthers’ 21-14 victory snapped the Irish’s 30-game TRAC winning streak.
“Defending a conference title is never easy,” Winters said. “We know the bull’s-eye is on our back, and in order for us to defend our title we will have to work twice as hard. Early on, I believe the offense, led by Riley Keller, will be the strength of this team.”
Since the start of TRAC competition in 2011, the Panthers are 69-18 overall, 43-6 in conference action, and reached the postseason all seven years.
Central Catholic defenders Andrew Parker (30) and Justin Schiets (39) will have the Irish in the hunt for another TRAC title this year.
Coach: Greg Dempsey, 19th year
2017 record: 11-3, 5-2
Top players: Seniors Jase Bowen, 6-1, 190, WR-P; Justin Schiets, 6-0, 220, LB; Andrew Parker, 5-10, 175, DB; Michael Griffin, 6-2, 185, WR; Matt Griffin, 6-2, 185, CB; Vinnie Klempner, 6-2, 280, OL; Nehemiah Cannon, 6-2, 260, OL-DL.
Outlook: Central Catholic saw its run of four consecutive TRAC titles snapped by Whitmer and lost its regular-season finale to league foe St. John’s. But the Fighting Irish rebounded in the postseason to reach their fourth consecutive Division III state semifinal before falling 16-7 to eventual state champion Trotwood-Madison.
Since 2012, when Dempsey (179-46) guided the Irish to their second D-II state championship and 14-1 season, Central is 75-11 overall. The Irish added another state crown (D-III) in 2014, a runner-up finish in 2015, and consecutive state semifinal seasons in 2016 and last year. This is the best sustained run for a Toledo-area football program.
If the Irish can effectively blend their eight returning offensive starters with four more on defense, this should be another memorable season even with the team back in D-II this season. Central has experience (33 seniors, 22 returning letterwinners) and depth at the skill positions, and the kicking game should be strong.
Much may hinge on the passing output of returning senior quarterback Troy Durden, whose completion percentage was low in 2017. The Irish must find ways to get the ball to the explosive Michigan State-bound Bowen.
Schiets and Parker will be counted on to lead a relatively inexperienced defense, and Dempsey sees a need to build depth on both lines.
“We have a big and experienced senior class that we need to perform well early due to our challenging opening [nonleague] schedule,” Dempsey said. “We need guys to step up on the defensive line and at running back. If we can control the opponents’ run game, and establish our run game, that will be the key to our nonleague schedule, and for competing in the TRAC.”
Coach: Larry McDaniel, second year
2017 record: 6-5, 4-3
Top players: Seniors Jack Nicholson, 6-3, 285, OL-DT; Marcus Jarrett, 5-8, 165, WR-DB; Marek Toerne, 6-4, 300, OL-DL; Lester Turner, 5-11, 200, LB. Juniors Dimitrios Mitsopoulos, 5-11, 175, WR-DB; Gary Batch, 6-2, 170, WR-DB. Sophomore Braydon Lichtenberg, 6-2, 170, QB.
Outlook: McDaniel, the longtime college assistant coach, oversaw a team that made strides in 2017, including upsetting Central Catholic in the regular-season finale to earn a D-II playoff berth.
He looks for the Titans to build on that this season with 31 letterwinners included on a 70-player roster. Five offensive and six defensive starters are back. Nicholson is a leader up front, Mitsopoulos has shown talent (49 catches, 579 yards) at receiver, and the future looks bright for Lichtenberg, who started eight games as a freshman a year ago (1,199 yards,11 TDs passing).
McDaniel sees maturity in his lineup thanks to young players seeing time in key roles in 2017. His chief concern is rebuilding an offensive line that graduated four starters.
“Our success, or lack thereof, will depend largely on our revamped O-line,” McDaniel said. “Our kids had a good summer, and their expectations are high.”
The Titans are trying to end their league championship drought. They have not claimed a title since winning a City League crown in 1996.
Coach: Chad Long, third year
2017 record: 5-5, 3-4
Top players: Seniors Noah Hotz, 5-11, 175, WR-DB-P; Hayden Lehmann, 6-2, 200, QB; Caleb Wood, 6-0, 210, LB; Mike Thomas, 6-0, 285, OL. Junior Dontrez Brown, 6-3, 270, DE.
Outlook: The Little Giants are looking to win their first league title since taking the final championship in the former Greater Buckeye Conference in 2010.
Long, who has 18 letterwinners returning, including seven offensive and eight defensive starters back, will rely on Lehmann to run the offense, and Brown and Wood to lead the defense. Lehmann was named first-team All-TRAC. Hotz is a two-time All-TRAC punter.
The Little Giants should be strong on the line and at linebacker on defense, and also will rely on solid special teams play. Long’s top concern is filling the graduation voids left on the offensive line and in the secondary.
“We, as coaches, want to see our players compete in the TRAC, week in and week out,” Long said, “ and we want to see them play hard for four quarters.”
Coach: Mark Ritzler, 13th year
2017 record: 4-6, 3-4
Top players: Seniors Tanner Rickle, 6-0, 210, QB; Steven Gerdemann, 6-2, 250, C; Adam Gilbert, 6-0, 180, WR. Juniors Parker Fetterman, 5-10, 165, CB; Moses Gaines, 5-10, 185, CB.
Outlook: The Trojans took a step back last season after reaching the Division I state playoffs in 2016. A significant climb in the TRAC standings this season will be difficult with just 13 returning letterwinners on a 59-player roster. Three starters return on offense, five on defense.
Ritzler is counting heavily on Rickle after he passed for 1,370 yards and had a hand in 25 TDs last season. Gerdemann is a third-year starter, Fetterman had four interceptions, and Gilbert caught 31 passes for 415 yards and six scores.
A lack of depth and overall team speed, and an inexperienced offensive line are Ritzler main concerns entering the season.
“Overall, we graduated a big senior class that left many big holes to fill,” Ritzler said. “Our players up from successful JV and freshman teams will have plenty of opportunities to earn Friday-night playing time. The offense especially will be raw, but having a senior quarterback back will make it easier.”
The Trojans’ last league title came in 2009, when they shared a crown with Napoleon and Sandusky in the former Greater Buckeye Conference. Findlay first needs to tighten things up on defense after yielding 37.8 points per game in 2017.
Coach: Dan Chipka, second year
2017 record: 2-8, 1-6
Top players: Seniors Malachi Wyse, 6-0, 205, RB; Joey Carroll, 6-7, 240, TE-DE; Jakiel Wells, 6-1, 185, QB; Cam Skinner, 6-1, 200, SS; Evan Anstead, 5-11, 200, LB; Gunner Olsen, 6-5, 280, OL. Junior Todd Bumphis, 6-0, 185, WR-FS.
Outlook: The Knights made some strides last year in their first season under Chipka, winning two games after going 3-27 from 2014-16, including the school’s first 0-10 finish in 2016. A big improvement came with a defense that allowed just 23.1 points per game after allowing 39.0 the year before.
Chipka hopes the team’s leadership and continuity will pave the way to a better season, but sees a lack of depth as perhaps the biggest barrier to the desired success.
Wyse, who rushed for 1,461 yards and scored 11 TDs in earning third-team All-Ohio honors in D-II, again will be the No. 1 offensive option. Carroll already has committed to the University of Toledo.
“We feel that we have made a tremendous amount of progress through our offseason program, minicamp, and training camp,” Chipka said. “The critical factors for our program will always be attitude, effort, and enthusiasm.
“We need to continue to develop our attention to detail and fundamentals, but we are very excited about our opportunity and potential for the upcoming season.”
Coach: John Galyas, second year
2017 record: 5-5, 3-4
Top players: Seniors Trey Reddick, 6-0, 165, WR-FS; Adam Ummel, 6-0, 180, WR-CB; Jake Novak, 6-3, 190, WR-CB; Josh Nagy, 6-1, 200, TE-LB; Emilio Rendon, 6-3, 170, WR-CB; Cameron Aiton, 5-9, 160, WR-SS; Kyle Miller, 5-9, 170, RB-LB.
Outlook: The Eagles continued an upward climb last year after a 1-9 season in 2015 and a 3-7 finish in 2016. They beat St. John’s, a D-II playoff qualifier, for the first time.
Galyas has 29 returning letterwinners on his 54-player roster, with 14 seniors. Six starters are back on offense, seven on defense. Clay received a huge blow during preseason practice when projected third-year quarterback Reese Wamer (1,458 yards, 10 TDs passing; 574 yards, seven TDs rushing in 2017) was lost for the season to a knee injury. Reddick (57 catches, 709 yards), who was selected first-team All-TRAC and D-II All-Northwest District, will now try to form a connection with sophomore quarterback Logan Heintschel.
Clay should have good senior leadership and work ethic, and talent and experience at the skill positions and in the secondary. The defensive line is deep. Beyond the loss of Wamer, concerns for Galyas are inexperience on the offensive line and at linebacker.
“We had a really good offseason and we saw some of our seniors really grow as leaders,” Galyas said. “Last year we took a step forward, and we are looking to take another step forward this year.”
Coach: Andre Griffin, third year
2017 record: 4-6, 2-5
Top players: Seniors Jaleel King, 6-3, 185, WR; Jordan McClendon, 5-11, 265, OL-DL; Rashaad Wallace, 6-0, 175, QB-DB; Cole Miracle, 6-1, 175, PK. Junior Brandon Taylor, 6-3, 245, DE.
Outlook: After earning playoff berths in 2014 and 2015 and competing near the top of the TRAC, the Spartans have slipped the past two seasons. They hope to bounce back this year as Griffin — the son of Ohio State’s legendary two-time Heisman Trophy-winning running back Archie Griffin — will have 16 seniors and 16 returning letterwinners on his 55-player roster. Six starters are back on offense, four on defense.
The Spartans expect to be strong at the skill positions on offense and in the secondary. A lack of depth on both lines could be the team’s biggest hurdle to clear. King and Taylor were second-team All-TRAC selections, and McClendon is a fourth-year starter.
The biggest loss to graduation was quarterback Adrine Mitchell (1,753 yards, 14 TDs passing; 636 yards, 12 TDs rushing).
“We are a young team, but we have good athletes,” Griffin said. “We need to create depth. If we do that, we will be in every game.”
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