It was easy for the Findlay Trojans — favorites to win the 2012 Three Rivers Athletic Conference football championship — to fly under the radar last year. At least until the midway point of the season.
Findlay entered the brand new TRAC coming off back-to-back 5-5 seasons, and had produced an overall record of 23-27 during Mark Ritzler's first five seasons as head coach.
Based on that span, TRAC coaches voted the Trojans to place sixth in the eight-team conference at their preseason meeting last August. But Findlay would prove rival coaches off the mark on those prognostications.
If there was still any doubt the Trojans were legitimate title contenders — after they opened 4-0 overall (1-0 TRAC) and outscored those foes 180-57 — it disappeared in week 5. At home, the Trojans laid an impressive 31-7 beating on a highly respected Central Catholic squad.
Findlay finished 9-2 overall and a second-place 6-1 in the TRAC, losing only to eventual conference champion Whitmer (49-23) in week 7, and at Hudson (35-28 in overtime) in the first round of the Division I playoffs.
There will be no flying under the radar for the Trojans this season.
With nine offensive starters returning from a team that averaged 37.5 points per game in 2011, including first-team All-TRAC and All-Ohio second-team quarterback Paul Cosiano, Findlay was the clear choice of conference coaches to win the title this year.
The Trojans received five of the eight first-place votes in the preseason poll. TRAC coaches were not permitted to include their teams on their ballots. Findlay totaled 47 points for first, followed by 43 for Central Catholic, 36 for defending champion Whitmer, and 30 for St. John's Jesuit.
Central (two) and Whitmer (one) collected the remaining first-place votes.
"That's a sign that we've got some good players coming back, and we do," Ritzler said. "We'll see what happens. Everyone's feeling good right now because we haven't started banging around yet. One or two injuries can really turn around a season.
"We're not going to bang around a whole lot in our practices, and in our scrimmages we [weren't] going to give a lot of reps to our starters. We know what they can do, and the most important thing is making sure we get into the season as healthy as we can."
In addition to Cosiano, who passed for 2,032 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior first-year starter in 2011, the Trojans also feature senior running back Vance Settlemire, who rushed for 1,100 yards and 17 TDs, and the potent receiving trio of Joe Davidson, Jimmy Orwick and Wyatt Krupp. Leading tackler Devin Dennard (105 tackles), a senior linebacker, returns to lead the defense.
"Last year in our nonleague schedule we were able to get some wins early," Ritzler said, "and that's something we hadn't been able to do in our program for a few years. That gave our kids the belief that they could win.
"Now, we've got a bunch of kids back and they know they can do it. We've talked about it since January that we're not going to be able to sneak up on anyone. So, we've kind of used that as our motto. We're going to get everybody's best game, and we're going to have to give them their best game."
Central also returns an abundance of offensive talent, with eight returning starters, plus three other letter winners who saw considerable action at the skill positions.
Keying the Irish will be heavily recruited 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior quarterback DeShone Kizer, who passed for 1,226 yards and 10 TDs in 2011. He gets help from senior tailback Amir Edwards (1,244 rushing yards, 23 TDs), senior tight end Keith Towbridge, and junior receiver Derich Weiland.
Heading up the Central defense are senior safety Jayme Thompson (73 tackles), who has committed to Ohio State, senior linebacker Ian Butler, and 6-0, 315-pound senior nose tackle Jon Perrin.
"We've got a lot of guys coming back," Central coach Greg Dempsey said. "A lot of people are saying we're going to be good, and I think our kids believe they're going to be good. So, we have to back that up and come out every week ready to play.
"People are going to be trying to shut us down. Hopefully teams are going to stack the box to shut down our running game and DeShone Kizer has the ability to take advantage of that in the passing game."
Central last won football titles in the City League from 2005-08, starting that run the same season the Irish went 14-1 and captured a Division II state championship.
"The keys for us will be staying injury free, not turning the football over, and our defense coming along," Dempsey said. "There's talent there, and they're really working hard. I've been happy with our team this whole offseason and preseason. It's just a matter of getting some repetitions and building some depth."
Defending champion Whitmer, which also won titles in its final two years in the City League (2009-10), lost more top talent than any team in the TRAC, and no longer has head coach Joe Palka on the sideline.
Palka, who led the Panthers to five D-I playoff appearances in his six seasons, guided three league title teams, led his final two teams to the D-I state semifinals, and his 2006 squad to the regional final.
Gone from the field are two-time first-team All-Ohioans Chris Wormley and Jody Webb, and 2011 all-staters Mark Meyers and Storm Norton. Wormley is now at Michigan, Webb and Norton at Toledo, and Meyers at Michigan State.
New Whitmer head coach Jerry Bell will rely on a defensive unit which returns six starters, including 6-1, 290-pound senior tackle Marquise Moore, senior linebackers Jack Linch and Nate Holley, and senior defensive backs Nick Holley and Marcus Elliott.
St. John's and Fremont Ross, which was tabbed for fifth, are each paced by senior third-year quarterbacks — Eastern Michigan-bound Brogan Roback for the Titans, and Tyler Wolf for Ross.
Another new TRAC head coach is Chris Hedden, who will lead a significant rebuilding effort at St. Francis de Sales.
Clay will be led by senior twin running backs Damon and Devin Dominique, and 6-4, 220-pound senior defensive end Jared Gray.
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6461, or on Twitter @JungaBlade.