Shawnee starts the football season Friday night at Catholic Central with one of its smallest senior classes. The Braves usually have 12 to 13 seniors, coach Rick Meeks said, but this year they have six.
It’s a small, but experienced class that includes players like lineman Jeff VanZant, who started on the 2011 state runner-up team; Jalen Nelson, a running back/linebacker getting looks from schools in the Mid-American Conference; and Kaitlyn Gregory, who made 38-of-46 extra points last season, her first as a starter as she took over for her sister Carly.
In their first three years, the Braves seniors played nine extra games in the playoffs.
“They’ve got a lot of extra practice,” Meeks said. “We’ve gone to at least Week 12 since any of those kids have been here.”
The standout in the class is Nelson. He ran for 459 yards last season, averaging a team-best 7.8 yards per carry. He also led the team with 70 tackles at linebacker.
With Shawnee graduating its all-time leading rusher, Alex McCrory, Nelson will figure even more in the Braves’ offensive attack.
“Jalen is as good as anybody around,” Meeks said.
The Braves also graduated their quarterback, Tyler Bostick, who started for one season. Saalih Muhammad, a sophomore transfer from Springfield, won the starting job in preseason practices.
“He’s 6-2, 180,” Meeks said. “He’s got all the skills. He can run. He’s got a strong arm. He’s calm. He’s got a lot of poise. Nothing’s going to rattle him. He’s going to get better and better. He’s a hard-working kid.”
The Braves finished 8-4 last season and 4-1 in the Central Buckeye Conference Kenton Trail Division. Tecumseh ended their two-year reign as division champs.
But the Braves rallied in the postseason with a 42-34 comeback win over Alter in the first round before falling 36-35 at Athens in the second round. If not for a late touchdown, they would have played in the regional final for the third time in nine years.
This year’s team will be a little different than some of the recent Shawnee teams. The Braves will be faster, Meeks said, but but not as physical.
Three of their top weapons on offense — Nelson, Dusty Seelig and David Barnett — were teammates on the CBC championship 4x200-meter relay team.
“We’ll do some things to utilize our speed,” Meeks said. “We have as much team speed as anybody we’ve ever had.”
Barnett is the team’s top returning receiver with 19 catches last season. The Braves lost J.D. Davis and Andrew Young, who combined for 55 catches, to graduation.
Clay Phillips is another experienced returner. He had 46 tackles and an interception in the secondary last season.