The Ohio Heritage Conference flexed its muscles in 2019, advancing two teams to the Ohio High School Athletic Association football state semifinals.
The conference is hoping to make an even greater mark in 2020, proving it belongs among the top small school conferences in the state.
Prep football teams were cleared to play contact sports earlier this month after being halted for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ohio High School Athletic Association has modified the football schedule this fall, allowing schools to play a six-game regular season before a modified state playoffs begin in Week 7.
Here are five OHC storylines to follow in 2020:
Back-to-back?: The Greenon High School football team went 8-2 last season, winning its first OHC South championship in school history and first league title since claiming the Central Buckeye Conference Mad River Division in 2007.
“We’re excited about this year,” Wooten said. “More importantly, we’re just excited to have the opportunity to play. Our staff and our kids are excited for the opportunity to defend our title. We’re excited about the group of kids that we have.”
The Knights were 0-30 in three straight seasons before Wooten took the job in 2017. Now in his fourth season, Greenon has improved from 3-7 to 6-4 to 8-2 last season.
“It’s been a process to change the culture and for our kids to develop that mindset that they can compete,” Wooten said. “Our staff has done a great job with our kids. Our kids do a great job of understanding our expectations.”
This year, the Knights will have a new signal-caller under center in senior Evan Davis. He’ll take over for OHC South Division Player of the Year Cade Rice, who moved to Northmont.
“He’s had the opportunity to play at the varsity level as a defensive back and at receiver,” Wooten said. “Our staff feels good about what he’s done and how he progressed throughout the summer and into the fall. He’s very capable of doing a good job and helping us get those wins and defend our title.”
The Knights return a host of strong skill players, including All-Ohio honorable mention wide receiver Kameron Cox, as well as Bass Moore, Clay Hough and highly-recruited kicker Nathan Hawks.
New coaches: The league saw three new coaches hired this offseason, including Southeastern’s Aaron Woods, Catholic Central’s Ty Myers and Triad’s Dylan Wears.
Woods replaced Payton Printz, who coached the Trojans for three seasons. The Southeastern graduate was the defensive coordinator last year and previously was the head coach at Graham. The Trojans are seeking their first OHC title since 2001.
Catholic Central has a new coach in Ty Myers, a North grad who played at the University of Illinois and the San Diego Chargers. He takes over for Mike McKenna, who spent four seasons as head coach. The Irish, who went 0-10 each of the last two seasons, are seeking their first OHC title since 2010.
Triad hired former Ohio University player Dylan Wears as its new head coach this summer. Wears, the Cardinals’ third head coach in the past three seasons, replaces Zach Winslow, who left to take the job at his alma mater Marion Elgin. The Cardinals went 3-7 last season and last won an OHC title in 2013.
Year 3: Northeastern is looking to improve in its third year under coach Jake Buchholtz. The Jets went 2-8 last season after finishing 1-9 in 2019.
The youthful Jets saw several underclassmen lead the way on offense last season, including sophomore QB Cade Houseman, WR Gunnar Leonard and RB Hunter Albright. Senior Jake Nichols will play tight end this season after serving as the team’s QB last fall.
It won’t be easy for the Jets in the loaded OHC North. The Jets five division opponents won a combined 40 games last season.
Playoff powerhouses: Three Ohio Heritage Conference North Division teams all advanced to the state playoffs last season, including Mechanicsburg (11-3), West Liberty-Salem (11-2) and West Jefferson (12-2).
The Roughriders beat the Tigers in a D-V regional final last season, falling to Ironton in the state final.
Mechanicsburg advanced to the D-VI state semifinals, falling to eventual state champion Anna.
All three teams return a strong nucleus this fall and will vie for the OHC North title this year.
Speaking of playoffs: The COVID-19 pandemic brought changes to both the regular season schedule and the OHSAA playoffs. Every team will enter the playoffs this fall, which is scheduled to begin Oct. 9 and 10.
Greenon has never made the football postseason, meaning it will have a chance to play for a state title this fall. They went 8-2 last fall, but finished less than one Harbin point behind Blanchester for the eighth spot in the D-V, Region 20 playoffs.
“It’s not the way you want to get into the playoffs, but what we’ve told our kids is that it’s about how we respond when we get there,” Wooten said. “We’re blessed to have that opportunity. It doesn’t matter if you’re 0-6 or 6-0, you still have the opportunity to play for a state championship game. We’re excited about it.”
Divisional assignments won’t change, but new playoff regions will be drawn by Sept. 18. Schools are also permitted to opt out of the playoffs.
Coaches will vote on playoff seeding similar to other tournaments and some teams could have a first-round bye. All playoff games through the regional semifinals could be hosted by the higher-seeded team, according to the OHSAA.
If a school is eliminated from the playoffs or chooses not to enter, they have the option to schedule up to four more games through Nov. 14.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Kameron Cox, Greenon: The senior running back/wide receiver accounted for more than 1,007 yards and 16 TDs last season, earning Division III All-Ohio third team honors.
Bass Moore, Greenon: Despite missing four games due to injury, the senior caught 31 passes for 593 and six TDs last season.
Wade Eriksen, Southeastern: The junior quarterback accounted for 1,530 yards and 11 TDs last season, despite missing four games due to an injury.
Gunnar Leonard, Northeastern: The sophomore defensive end led the Jets in tackles with 81 last season, including two sacks.
Jake Hurst, Mechanicsburg: The junior linebacker had 86 tackles last season, earning D-VI All-Ohio first team honors. He also accounted for 625 yards and 10 TDs as a wide receiver.