There has been a changing of the guard in the Northwest Ohio Athletic League the past two seasons, and a new power has risen from what, five years ago, would have seemed an extremely unlikely place.
That power is Delta under sixth-year coach Mike Vicars, who has proved to be a master of building losing programs into playoff teams, which he's done at three schools.
Since inheriting a team that went 0-10 in 1998, Vicars and his staff have forged a phenomenal turnaround that has taken the Panthers from the basement to the penthouse - a 31-6 record since 2001, the school's first league titles (2001-02) in half a century, and four straight playoff appearances. Capping things was an impressive upset of powerhouse Coldwater en route to reaching the D-IV state semifinals last year before losing to eventual champion Versailles.
Although the Panthers (12-2, 7-1 NWOAL) were beaten out for the league title by Patrick Henry (11-2, 8-0) last year, they impressed in the postseason.
"We've had some really good experiences with a high level of success, and we have some kids back who now know what it takes to get to that level," said Vicars, who previously turned around programs at Ada and Hilltop. "A winning attitude helps, and it's much easier to push the kids now because they believe in what we're doing."
With eight offensive starters returning from that talented squad, including the NWOAL's premier running back Nate Kmic, the Panthers are the choice of league coaches to win the championship this season.
Delta got seven of the nine first-place votes in a poll of league coaches, and 78 of a possible 81 voting points to edge out Liberty Center. The Tigers received two first-place nods and 70 points. Patrick Henry, hit hard by graduation, was next.
"I don't think the kids will feel any extra pressure because they're picked to win," Vicars said. "They seem to be focused on the task at hand. They've grown up playing at a high level and they have high expectations of themselves.
"They know they've got a challenge because there's some very strong classes at other schools in the league, and they've had some tough games with those teams."
Delta's emergence, along with Patrick Henry, which also shared the 2002 league crown with the Panthers, interrupted the dominant run of coach Rex Lingruen's Liberty Center program.
The Tigers had gone 45-3 in NWOAL games (70-7 overall, including 15-4 in playoff games) between 1996 and 2001, with four league titles, a state championship (1997), a state runner-up finish ('98) and two state semifinal appearances.
"I think people took winning for granted around here the last few years and figured they could win by just showing up," Lingruen said of 7-3 and 6-4 seasons. "We've got to get back to being physical and hitting people. We're not the best team in the league anymore, and we're not feared anymore."
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish.
Coach: Mike Vicars, sixth year
Last season: 12-2, 7-1
Returning letter winners: 12
Returning starters: offense 8, defense 4
Top players: Seniors Nate Kmic, 5-9, 180, TB/LB; Jamison Moss, 5-8, 165, FB/DT; Ryan Vicars, 5-10, 165, QB; Ryan Gombash, 5-11, 165, G/DT; Tony Cass, 6-0, 175, FB/LB; Craig Walter, 6-1, 175, SE/DB.
Outlook: From a team that reached the D-IV state semifinals last year, the Panthers return speedy third-year tailback Nate Kmic, who ran for over 1,600 yards and scored 32 TDs in 2003. Ryan Vicars passed for over 1,400 yards with 14 TDs and just six interceptions, three of which came in a regional final playoff upset of Coldwater.
On the defensive side, mighty-mite All-Ohio defensive tackle Moss (13 sacks) leads a small but ferocious pursuit of enemy offenses. Cass pitched in with 96 tackles and Gombash over 70 last year.
The Panthers will be very quick and versatile offensively, have the luxury of four returning offensive linemen, and coach Vicars likes the chemistry. On top of that, the program is full of confidence from last year's trip to the state semis.
"I think this team can be pretty good and I'm optimistic," said the normally guarded Vicars. "But this is the best schedule we've had in six years because there are a lot of NWOAL teams on an upswing. We'll be competitive and fun to watch, but I don't if that will result in the same number of wins."
Coach: Rex Lingruen, 20th year
Last season: 6-4, 4-4
Returning letter winners: 20
Returning starters: offense 7, defense 8
Scheme: Wing-T run-and-boot/5-3
Top players: Seniors Curt Silveus, 5-9, 170, HB/DB; Eric Wymer, 6-1, 180, FB/LB; Wade VanSickle 6-1, 219, OT/DE; Derek Proudfoot, 6-0, 230, OT/DE; Scott Stewart, 5-9, 190, C/DT. Junior Brian Babcock, 6-1, 175, QB/DB.
Outlook: The Tigers were picked to win the NWOAL last year, so their 4-4 league finish was a big disappointment after the prior eight LC squads posted a combined 57-7 league mark (84-13 overall). This has Lingruen and his veteran staff returning to the basics re-establishing Liberty's trademark work ethic and physical toughness. If they accomplish this, the Tigers may challenge Delta for the crown and return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
Silveus ran for over 1,100 yards despite missing 1 1/2 games, VanSickle was an all-district guard, Babcock had five interceptions, and Wymer topped the defense with 110 tackles in addition to his 700-plus rushing yards.
"Our senior leadership is better this year," Lingruen said. "Mentally, we were not tough last year, so that's what we're working on."
Coach: Bill Inselmann, 14th year
Last season: 11-2, 8-0
Returning letter winners: 15
Returning starters: offense 4, defense 5
Scheme: 2-back pro-set/5-2
Top players: Seniors Jon Spurgeon, 6-0, 230, OT/DT; Justin Sonnenberg, 6-2, 180, G/DE; Isaac Arthur, 5-10, 190, FB/LB; Tyler Tietje, 5-9, 160, LB. Juniors Marc Krauss, 6-3, 200, WR/SS; Billy Vance, 5-7, 213, C/DT.
Outlook: The Patriots ran the NWOAL table last year with a veteran team and great pass/run balance, and matched a school record for wins. But gone is all-league QB Trent Meyer, who was 164 of 278 for 2,794 yards and 22 TDs, and back Chris Tietje, who ran for 1,146 and 14 scores.
The offense, with promising junior QB Zack George, will look to talented All-Ohio receiver Krauss (64 catches, 1,451 yards, 15 TDs) for the big plays, and try to rekindle a running game while relying early on the pass.
The Pats are deep on both lines, Inselmann likes his senior leadership. But how fast an all-new backfield progresses will be the key.
"We really have to have some kids step up in the backfield," Inselmann said. "I think we're going to be an upper-half team in the league."
Coach: Mark Emans, 15th year
Last season: 6-4, 5-3
Returning letter winners: 10
Returning starters: offense 6, defense 7
Scheme: 1-back wing-T/5-3
Top players: Seniors Jake Reckner, 6-2, 225, TE/DE; Tony Gase, 6-2, 185, RB/LB; Jake Schlosser, 5-10, 165, G/NT; Garrett Coressel, 5-9, 150, RB/DB. Junior Ray Martinez, 6-2, 175, QB/DB. Sophomore Kyle Borton, 6-2, 290, OT/DT.
Outlook: The Indians may contend with some luck and execution. Team speed and size has improved, and Emans expects a solid defensive effort from a veteran group. The major question marks are depth on both lines and whether or not a passing game can be developed. The Tribe must also fill the graduation void left by Tyler Gearig (1,448 rushing yards, 15 TDs).
"We must start off well to be successful," Emans said of opening games with Fairview and Napoleon. The team attitude has been good, and the kids expect success."
Coach: John Downey, 26th year
Last season: 6-4, 5-3
Returning letter winners: 18
Returning starters: offense 5, defense 8
Scheme: T formation/5-2 angle
Top players: Seniors Casey Nofziger, 6-1, 185, RB/LB; Marty Kohv, 6-2, 255, OT/DT; Buddy Babcock, 6-2, 185, TE/DE; Jason Juillard, 5-11, 250, G/DT; Luke Wyse, 6-5, 220, G/DL; Levi Rupp, 5-7, 155, C/NG; Kevin Mignin, 5-9, 175, QB/DB; Mike Evans, 5-11, 165, RB/DB. Junior Zac Zimmerman, 6-0, 180, RB/LB.
Outlook: The Streaks are low in numbers with 32 players in the upper three grades, so depth could be an issue. Also, team speed is lacking and the top two rushers graduated. The upside is an experienced defense which allowed just 17.6 points per game last year. Downey sees his team as physically stronger, having a solid offensive line and the luxury of several multi-year starters.
Nofziger (682 rushing yards, 7 TDs) is a third-year linebacker. Kohv and Rupp are third-year line starters.
"Our depth is razor thin, so we can't afford any injuries," Downey said. "We'll have to count on our defense, and we cannot afford turnovers, penalties and bad field position, because I don't know if our offense is good enough to overcome those things."
Coach: Brian Arnold, third year
Last season: 2-8, 2-6
Returning letter winners: 18
Returning starters: offense 6, defense 6
Scheme: Split-back veer/5-2
Top players: Seniors Alex Tipton, 5-8, 158, WR/CB; Leo Link, 6-2, 188, TE/LB; Zach Fisher, 5-10, 166, WR/SS; Ian Shankster, 6-1, 193, OT/DT. Juniors Jamie Lorentz, 5-11, 178, QB/CB; Alex Oberlin, 6-2, 190, G/LB.
Outlook: The Golden Bears have Lorentz (697 rushing yards) back with experience running the option, and the special teams should be a plus. Fisher (91 tackles) and Link (80 tackles) should lead the defense.
But Arnold is fighting a lack of depth on both lines, a defense that needs to improve against the run, and a lack of confidence fostered by teams that have gone 2-22 the past three years.
"We need to split the first four games to get some confidence," Arnold said. "We're being picked in the middle of the pack, but with a win or two early we could do better than that."
Coach: Bob Beemer, 12th year
Last season: 4-6, 3-5
Returning letter winners: 13
Returning starters: offense 3, defense 4
Top players: Seniors Jason Miller, 6-1, 210, G/LB; Dustin Boger, 5-10, 175, C/DT; Brandon Brazeau, 6-2, 205, OT/DL; Justin Mossing, 5-7, 155, WR/CB; Travis Dowling, 6-0, 160, WR/DB; Matt Pinkleman, 6-1, 190, TE/DE. Junior Tyler Wynn, 6-2, 175, QB/CB.
Outlook: The Vikings lack quality depth with a roster of 35, and are inexperienced. The backfield should be solid, the receivers have improved and the offensive line has talent. The trouble is, those linemen play both ways.
Mossing had 80 tackles, Miller 73, and Wynn had 5 interceptions to
highlight the defensive returnees. Sophomore running backs Jack Wade (6-0, 200), who Beemer said is "a horse," and speedy Chris Pfund, who had 580 yards in varsity spot duty as a freshman, may create a solid run game.
"We have so many two-way starters that there are going to be a lot of question marks," Beemer said.
Coach: Joe Brigle, fourth year
Last season: 1-9, 0-8
Returning letter winners: 17
Returning starters: offense 8, defense 8
Scheme: Pro-set offset-I/5-2
Top players: Seniors Nick Moore, 6-3, 260, OT/LB; David Bauer, 6-2, 225, C/DT; Tyler Thomas, 6-1, 195, WB/SS. Juniors Stuart Thorp, 5-9, 165, QB/CB; Kurtis Moore, 5-9, 155, FB/FS; Matt Gambler, 6-1, 225, G/DE.
Outlook: The good news is, the Locomotives return plenty of starters on each side. The bad news is, they started on a 1-9 team that failed to win a league game. Brigle likes his team's overall speed and depth.
Thorp passed for 1,226 yards and 11 TDs, and Kurtis Moore ran for over 300 and caught 32 passes for 527 yards and 6 TDs. Thomas is the top returning tackler (45).
"A couple keys are getting off to a good start and eliminating big plays on defense," Brigle said.
Coach: Steve Brehmer, first year
Last season: 3-7, 2-6
Returning letter winners: 12
Returning starters: offense 2, defense 6
Top players: Seniors Nick Samar, 6-4, 310, OT/DE; Matt Taynor, 5-10, 200, TE/LB; Kyle Kissling, 6-1, 165, QB. Juniors Andy Pilliod, 5-10, 165, HB/S; Xavier Taylor, 6-4, 240, OT/DE. Sophomore Chris Goin, 5-11, 165, FB/LB.
Outlook: The Bulldogs may be up against it this season with only 20 players from the upper three grades, and just returning offensive starters. There are just seven seniors and four juniors, a drop of 14 in that class from two years ago. Complicating things is a new coaching staff and a switch from a spread offense to a run-oriented attack.
Team speed is OK, and the lines should be decent with good size. But a lack of depth combined with inexperience, especially in the middle three slots in the offensive line, are primary concerns of Brehmer, who spent 21 years as an assistant.
"We're going to play a totally different brand of football than the past few years," Brehmer said. "We're going to strap it up and try to run the ball. How well we do that will determine how well the season goes."
Longtime head coach Dave
Hansbarger and assistant Bob Fisher are volunteer coaches.
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