Northwood football coach Ken James said his team enters this season with a simple goal.
"Our goals are listed in stages - and the first goal is to win the first game," James said. "You have to remember, we haven't done that the last few years.
"Our next goal is to get out of the gate quick, because our second game is at Lake, and it will be a monster game because of everything that has gone on there.
"The nonleague has to come first, and the league has to remain in the back of our mind."
Well, the Rangers may not be focused on their Toledo Area Athletic Conference schedule just yet, but the rest of the league certainly is focused on them. That's because Northwood enters this season as the favorite to continue its dominance.
The Rangers, who have won the last three TAAC titles and have a 46-3 record since joining the league, took the top spot in a preseason poll of league coaches. A big reason for that is the return of 24
letter winners, including nine starters on offense and eight on defense.
"Once we get into league play, our goal is to win our league opener, then guarantee a .500 record in the league, then win the title," James said. "But the fact that we have a lot of kids back doesn't guarantee anything."
The Rangers have 55 players, including 12 seniors who lettered.
"Everybody who touched the ball for us on offense last year is back," said James.
Here is a look at the teams in predicted order of finish.
Coach: Ken James, 25th year
Last season: 7-4 overall, 6-0 TAAC
Last 10 years: 69-37, 46-3
Returning letter winners: 24
Returning starters: offense 9, defense 8
Top players: Seniors Zach Bermejo, 5-10, 179, HB; Corey Jones, 6-1, 250, FB-DE; Matt Miller, 5-8, 267, C; Jake Pressley, 6-2, 192, SS; Mike Prothero, 5-10, 189, LB; John Romstadt, 5-7, 145, CB; Erik Russell, 5-10, 163, QB. Juniors Rickey Hartley, 6-0, 189, FS; Tyler Mack, 5-8, 143, CB. Sophomores David Bogart, 6-3, 217, OT; Nick Russell, 5-11, 145, S; Nick Whitmore, 6-0, 203, LB.
Outlook: While depth is a concern at most small schools, it may be a strength for the Rangers. They nine starters on offense and eight on defense, from a team that made the Division V playoffs last year.
The offense features Bermejo, who ran for 810 yards and scored 16 times. Prothero, (476 yards rushing) and Pressley (417). Erik Russell is back at quarterback after throwing for 405 yards in the run-first offense.
On defense Pressley and Prothero were All-TAAC first-team, while Romstadt and Whitmore were voted second team.
"This team has the best depth I've ever had - we have sophomore backups who can play, and we could platoon," James said. "But the best part is we have good kids who are good competitors. These kids thrive on competition."
Coach: John Miller, fifth year
Last season: 6-4, 4-2
Last 10 years: 50-50, 24-29
Returning letter winners: 11
Returning starters: offense 8, defense 8
Top players: Seniors Zach Brumbaugh, 6-0, 160, WR-DB; Spencer Clark, 5-10, 170, RB-LB; Sam Ivan, 5-9, 155, WR-DB; Graham Miller, 5-10, 190, RB-DB; Nick Rightnowar, 5-11, 160, QB; Luke Sims, 6-0, 195, OL-DE; David Westmeyer, 6-1, 180, WR-DB.
Outlook: The Eagles return eight starters on each side of the ball.
On offense, Graham Miller ran for 1,097 yards and caught 23 passes for 236 yards, finishing atop the TAAC with 17 TDs. Rightnowar completed 163 of 255 passes for 2,171 yards and 27 TDs. His top returning targets include Westmeyer (38 catches, 637 yards), Brumbaugh (26, 495), and Ivan (44, 463).
TC's defense is strongest in the backfield, while the Eagles' special teams lost J.C. Miller, the league's top kicker a year ago. Brumbauch, an all-league punter, should be a weapon.
"We are very optimistic about the upcoming season," coach Miller said. "We will lean heavily on our senior leadership and experience to carry us."
Coach: Mike Bumb, 12th year
Last season: 7-3, 4-2
Last 10 years: 64-38, 20-10
Returning letter winners: 14
Returning starters: offense 5, defense 6
Top players: Seniors Austin Ashenfelter, 5-11, 215, LB; Jacob Carpenter, 5-10, 210, OL-DL; Mike Denton, 5-10, 188, LB; Quinton Nofziger, 5-8, 185, RB-LB; Trevor Reamsnyder, 5-10, 215, OL-LB; Mike Rohlf, 6-2, 215, DE; Gabe Shaffner, 6-1, 170, WR-DB. Junior Tyler Shipman, 5-10, 185, QB.
Outlook: While the offense lost Josiah Poletta and his league-high 1,261 rushing yards, Nofziger is back after running for 724 yards and eight TDs. Shipman, who threw for 821 yards and nine TDs, is back to direct the offense. Carpenter and Reamsnyder, both All-TAAC linemen, will anchor the Hilltop front.
The defense will be lead by Nofziger, who was a All-TAAC first teamer at linebacker, and Shaffner, who earned second team at defensive back.
"We have good size up front, and our skill-position players are solid," Bumb said. "I think our leadership and chemistry will be the difference between success and failure."
Coach: Joe Gutilla, second year
Last season: 1-9, 1-5
Last 10 years: 34-67, 22-31
Returning letter winners: 24
Returning starters: offense 6, defense 6
Schemes: Multiple wing/4-4 swarm
Top players: Seniors Nick Fuller, 5-9, 175, WB-SS; Mike Kiss, 5-11, 195, OL-DL; Murphy Mahoney, 6-0, 215, OL-LB; David Szymanski, 6-0, 210, OL-LB. Junior Mike Blazevich, 6-2, 180, QB-DB.
Outlook: The Cardinals return a number of letter winners, but the losses include Kyle
Gladieux, the league's defensive player of the year at linebacker and an All-TAAC running back who piled up 1,081 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Szymanski, an all-league pick on the offensive line and at linebacker, leads and experienced line on offense.
"Our experience up front will be a key on offense," Gutilla said. "Defensively we'll be small but quick. Our 10 seniors have started to show good leadership, which helps our team chemistry, and that has us excited about this season."
Coach: Chris Hardman, 13th year
Last season: 5-5, 4-2
Last 10 years: 47-56, 35-18
Returning letter winners: 13
Returning starters: offense 6, defense 6
Top players: Seniors J.J. Buckey, 6-1, 180, QB-S; A.J. Longthorne, 6-3, 275, OT-DT; Taylor Savage, 5-9, 160, RB-DB; Christian Siebenaler, 6-1, 195, OG-DT. Junior Paul Joseph, 6-1, 205, C-DE. Sophomore Will Longthorne, 5-10, 185, RB-LB.
Outlook: The Green Bears welcome back 13 letter winners and six starters on both sides of the ball.
The offensive returnees include Savage, who last season ran for 928 yards and scored seven TDs, while Will Longthorne added 438 yards and six TD. Buckey, who caught 23 passes for 492 yards, moves to quarterback.
The lines will be anchored by A.J. Longthorne and Siebenaler. Siebenaler earned All-TAAC first team on offense, while A.J. Longthorne was named to the first-team defense.
"We think our team has a chance to do some exciting things," Hardman said. "It certainly will be a process, but it is possible."
Coach: Scott Staten, first year
Last season: 2-8, 2-4
Last 10 years: 37-64, 7-23
Returning letter winners: 17
Returning starters: offense 7, defense 6
Top players: Seniors Joey Brown, 6-3, 203, OG-DE; Michael Donaldson, 5-10, 164, WR-DB; Dylan Koleff, 6-1, 155, WR-DB; Joshua Sonneberger, 6-1, 221, C-DT. Juniors Shannon Geren, 5-9, 180, RB-LB; Keegan Long, 6-0, 164, QB-DB.
Outlook: While the Bombers have a new coach, they also return 17 letter winners.
On offense the returnees include Geren, a all-league second-team pick who ran for 1,004 yards and 10 TDs, as well as Long, who threw for 673 yards and five TDs.
The lines will be anchored by Sonneberger, a three-year starter who was named All-TAAC first team at center and second team on the defensive line, and Brown, a first-team performer at defensive end and a second teamer at guard.
"We have a large group of seniors that have accepted the challenge of leading this team," Staten said. "Through hard work and discipline we are going to do everything we can to put ourselves in a position to succeed."
Coach: Tim Heffernan, second year
Last season: 1-9, 0-6
Last 10 years: 23-76, 11-42
Returning letter winners: 7
Returning starters: offense 7, defense 7
Schemes: Run and shoot/4-2
Top players: Seniors Hunter Stephens, 6-4, 250, FB-DE; Dakota Hruby, 6-2, 200, OL-LB. Junior Lucas Kennedy, 5-11, 175, QB-FS. Sophomores Brandon Bahnsen, 5-9, 165, WR-LB; David Gast, 5-7, 150, WR-LB; Zack Kalinoski, 5-7, 155, WR-DB.
Outlook: The Lakers continue to rebuild a program that has gone 1-28 following a win in the 2007 opener. The losses from last season include George
Biedenbach, who ran for 784 yards and scored nine of the team's 15 TDs.
Danbury has only two seniors and only seven letter winners. Those returnees will be asked to be the building blocks on both offense and defense.
"We're trying to build a program here with a combination of youth and hard work,"
Heffernan said. "But we are still going to be young."