Northwood looks to repeat as TAAC champion with, front row from left, Nick Whitmore, Nick Russell, and David Bogart, and back row, Evan Perkins, Justin Rohrs, Dustin Fullenlove, John Segura, and Michael Tonti.
The Blade/Lori King
In their 11 seasons in the Toledo Area Athletic Conference, coach Ken James' Northwood Rangers have posted a remarkable 58-4 conference record.
Seven times the Rangers have gone undefeated in TAAC play, including last season when they finished 9-2 overall and 7-0 in the conference.
In the other four seasons (2004-06 and 2010) James' squad lost one game in TAAC play, and the lone loss each time cost them titles.
So, with 10 starters returning on offense and seven more on defense on what is the most experienced team in James' 27 years at the Rangers' helm, it was no secret that Northwood was the unanimous pick of conference coaches to capture its eight TAAC championship in 12 years.
First-year Hilltop head coach Paul Kyser was unable to attend the preseason coaches meeting, and thus did not vote in the poll. But, Kyser agreed that Northwood was certainly the team to beat.
Being favored is something James has grown to expect, so these days he is turning his attention to a possible hurdle.
"A big problem you have when you get in that situation is being complacent," James said of ruling the TAAC roost. "There's always that danger when you do well that you think, 'Hey we just do well because we wear this uniform.'
"Sometimes people forget just how hard you had to work to get where you were. We're dealing with that a little bit this year. We try to work them hard in the offseason.
"We've had a decent offseason, but not a spectacular one. And we've had some injuries in the summer that have set us back a bit. We're a work in progress right now."
"We're getting a little bit better each day, but we're nowhere near where I want us to be. We're not a championship team yet."
The Rangers -- 142-127 under James, including 82-36 with seven playoff appearances since 2001 -- will have three fourth-year starters, and five other players who are in their third seasons as starters on offense, defense, or both.
The four-year trio includes fullback-linebacker Nick Whitmore, offensive tackle-defensive end David Bogart, and quarterback Nick Russell.
Potential complacency aside, James knows he holds the right cards in the title chase.
"We're big up front on both sides of the ball," James said. "Our offensive line is going to average about 245 or 250 pounds, and they're guys who can move. Our defensive line is going to be similar.
"That's going to be the strength of our team -- controlling the line of scrimmage."
Northwood has had another edge since leaving the Suburban Lakes League in 2000 and joining the TAAC.
"We're one of the bigger schools in the TAAC in terms of enrollment, so that helps us from a numbers standpoint," James said. "And, I'm very fortunate to have such a good coaching staff. Several of our guys could be head coaches, or have been head coaches in other sports. A lot of them have played for me and know what our program's all about.
"We're just lucky that we have kids who are willing to buy into what we're doing. We work hard to keep football as something that's important, and we've been fortunate to be able to do that."
Ottawa Hills (7-4, 5-2 TAAC) was picked to finish second by conference coaches.
The Green Bears are led by senior running back Will Longthorne, who rushed for 1,103 and scored 21 touchdowns in 2011, quarterback Jon Rodriguez, who passed for 1,141 yards and 16 TDs, and senior receiver/defensive back Michael Geiger, who has committed to Boston College as one of the nation's top-ranked placekickers. Geiger also punts for OH.
Gibsonburg earned the third spot, and 2010 champion Toledo Christian was tabbed for fourth.
Rounding out the TAAC coaches vote were Edon, Cardinal Stritch, Hilltop and Danbury.