When it began competition in the fall of 2011, the Three Rivers Athletic Conference was perceived as having the potential to become one of Ohio’s best high school conferences.
If the 2012 football season was any indication, the TRAC has confirmed that view.
Last year’s TRAC champions, the Whitmer Panthers (14-1) steamrolled their way to the Division I state championship game before falling 20-12 to Cincinnati Moeller at Canton’s Fawcett Stadium.
That game came one night after TRAC runner-up Central Catholic (14-1) captured its second Division II state title in eight years by edging 2011 champ Trotwood-Madison, 16-12, in the final at Massillon’s Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.
READ MORE: 2013 High School Football Preview
Two TRAC teams were in the playoff finals of Ohio’s top two divisions, and 2012 preseason conference favorite Findlay placed third and just missed the D-I playoffs with an 8-2 record.
Enough said. The TRAC is among the state’s elite conferences.
Flash forward to the present, and the conference shouldn’t lose much ground in 2013.
With Notre Dame-bound quarterback DeShone Kizer being one of its seven returning offensive starters, and having four more starters back on defense, Central was a slight favorite in a preseason coaches poll to unseat Whitmer as TRAC champion.
Further, with the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s new seven-division playoff alignment, the Irish dropped from Division II to Division III, and are viewed by many as solid contenders for another state crown.
“Any time you come off that kind of season, if you have anything coming back, you’re probably going to get that nod,” 14th-year Central coach Greg Dempsey said of the expectations. “It’s an honor that people think that about you.”
The Irish received six of eight first-place votes and 48 voting points to edge Whitmer in the preseason TRAC poll. The Panthers garnered the other two first-place nods and had 44 points. St. John’s Jesuit (4-6 in 2012) was tabbed for third and Findlay was picked to place fourth.
Other key returning senior starters for the Irish include Duke-bound offensive lineman Zach Harmon, and D-I college recruiting targets Derich Weiland (receiver/cornerback) and Paul Moses (running back/linebacker). Another standout is junior linebacker Chris Green.
Whitmer graduated more starters than Central, most notably All-Ohio first-teamers Nick Holley (quarterback) and Jack Linch (linebacker), second-teamer Marquise Moore, and third-teamers Nate Holley (linebacker), JoeNathan Mays (defenseive lineman), and Eric Hart (offensive lineman).
Nick Holley alone accounted for over 4,000 yards and 46 touchdowns. In his only year as a quarterback, he burst onto the scene to rush for 2,084 yards and 21 TDs, and was 134-of-214 passing for 1,939 yards and 25 scores with only five interceptions. The Panthers are not likely to even approach that type of production with two sophomores competing for the starting job.
But TRAC coaches made the same assessment of Whitmer last year when they voted the Panthers to place third behind Findlay and Central. Dempsey won’t soon forget Whitmer’s lopsided 42-0 win at Central in week 10 last fall.
“Last year, I didn’t have our team ready,” Dempsey said of the 2012 loss to Whitmer. “It was one night, and the kids are going to remember that. But it will be two completely different teams going against each other this year.”
Central, of course, rebounded to win five straight playoff games to match its 2005 D-II state crown.
“Whitmer has won four [league] titles in a row now,” Dempsey said. “Just like people said about us when we won four in a row [2005-08 in City League], until somebody beats them, they’re the team to beat. That’s the way we’re going to look at it.”
Whitmer’s key returnees include senior safety Marcus Elliott, a second-team All-Ohioan who had eight interceptions in 2012 and has already committed to Kent State, and senior wideout Chris Boykin, who had 42 receptions for 654 yards and is also a D-I college recruiting target.
“We always have confidence in what we do in our program,” said the Panthers’ Jerry Bell, who shared D-I state coach-of-the-year honors last year in his first season as a head coach. “We’ve got kids who believe in our system and in our coaches.
“The difference going into this year compared to last year, for me, I feel more prepared. For this team, we have less experience. We’ve got some holes to fill. But, as we progress through the season, you’re going to see us start to challenge guys to step up into leadership roles.
“If we can get those keys guys to be the leaders, I think we’re going to have a pretty solid football team.”
Whitmer won titles in its final two years in the City League (2009-10), and won the first two TRAC titles on the field (2011-12), although Panther forfeitures based on an OHSAA eligibility ruling officially gave the inaugural conference title retroactively to Findlay in 2011.
In the past three seasons, Whitmer, now established as one of Ohio’s top big-school programs, has posted 39-4 overall record, including a 10-3 mark in postseason play.
It is safe to say the road to the big-school state title goes through Whitmer.
The 2010 and 2011 Panther teams lost in the D-I state semifinals to eventual champions Lakewood St. Edward (23-13) and Cleveland St. Ignatius (17-6), respectively, those years.
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter @JungaBlade.