Jamal Bell, left, Elijah Elliott, Chase Bodeman, Austyn Melroy, and Kobee Houghtlen return to lead Whitmer this season. The Panthers, who went 39-4 overall from 2010-2012, finished 6-5 a year ago. THE BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH
Whitmer won the Three Rivers Athletic Conference football title in 2012, and Central Catholic won the crown last season.
If the TRAC coaches are correct in their preseason poll, Whitmer and Central will share the championship this season.
Each team received 57 total points in the coaches poll, with Whitmer’s Panthers getting five first-place votes and the Irish garnering the other three nods for first.
St. Francis de Sales (8-3, 6-1), last season’s runner-up to Central, was picked by the coaches to place third this year, followed in order by Lima Senior, Fremont Ross, St. John’s Jesuit, Findlay, and Clay.
Coach Gerry Bell’s Panthers were 6-5 overall and 5-2 in the TRAC a year ago after finishing as Division I state runners-up at 14-1 in 2012, Bell’s first year as coach.
That season capped a three-year run in which Whitmer went 39-4 overall, the best record during that span by any Ohio D-I team. The Panthers reached the state semifinals in 2010 and 2011.
With that type of success, the bar had been raised at Whitmer. Thus, for Bell and the young, inexperienced Panthers lineup he put on the field, that 6-5 mark in 2013 did not exactly meet those new, lofty standards.
“Our kids are hungry,” Bell said. “That 6-5 record is not something we were very proud of. We’ve come to expect more than that when it comes to this football program.
“It’s a great honor to be picked to place first in the league, but for us, we’ve got to take it one game at a time and let the chips fall where they may as the season progresses.”
Central coach Greg Dempsey enters the season having lost his offensive and defensive leaders from a year ago, when the Irish (12-1, 7-0) were ranked No. 2 in Division III and reached the regionals final. That came on the heels of their Division II state championship in 2012.
Instrumental in both of those playoff runs were three-year quarterback starter DeShone Kizer, a first-team All-Ohioan who is now at Notre Dame, and Chris Green, a second-team All-Ohio linebacker who is a senior at Central this year, but turned 19 before Aug. 1 and is not permitted to participate under Ohio High School Athletic Association rules.
Dempsey will feel that void, but is more concerned with filling it the right way.
“The biggest thing is trying to find out who we are and not trying to make these seniors be like last year’s seniors,” said Dempsey, who is 132-36 with two state titles through his first 14 seasons at Central. “When you lose talented guys like Kizer and Green, one of the keys is trying not to ask [the new] people to be those kids. You fit things around the kids you have, play to their strengths, and let this team form its own identity.”
The Irish have three players seeking to succeed Kizer at quarterback — senior Marcus Winters and juniors Drew Grombacher and Simeon Washington — and each brings some unique talents to the mix.
“When you replace a guy who started 36 straight games at quarterback, that’s a big thing on that side of the ball,” Dempsey said. “There’s no other position in sports that can affect things the way that position can.
“We’re trying to find out what each of our new quarterbacks can do and play to their strengths.”
Whitmer will rely on a talented corps of offensive skill-position talent, a group led by versatile senior running back/receiver Jamal Bell and junior quarterback Chase Bodeman, who rushed for more than 800 yards and passed for more than 500 in 2013.
“I don’t ever believe in rebuilding,” coach Bell said of Whitmer’s dip in 2013. “We reloaded with the talent that we had and ended up playing a lot of young kids. We had a good season considering we started so many sophomores. We continued the run of playoffs we’ve been in since 2009, and that was big for us, especially since we struggled a bit in the regular season.”
With his own team’s graduation losses, Dempsey said Whitmer will be formidable force in the TRAC title chase.
“Whitmer is a huge hurdle,” said Dempsey, whose Irish play the Panthers in the conference opener on Sept. 19. “They usually have the best [roster] numbers around, and they have a lot of quality. Jerry Bell took over for [former Panther coach] Joe Palka and continued the momentum they had.
“They have a lot of guys back with experience. We’ll really have to have things clicking in the first month of our season. Whitmer should be the favorite.”
If the Panthers are to dethrone Central as champion, Bell sees a critical factor early.
“We’ve got really good skill-position kids, and they’ve got to stay healthy,” Bell said of one key to his team’s success. “And our offensive line has to prove itself. I feel good about where we’re at defensively.
“Our first three games are Perrysburg, Detroit Catholic Central, and Dayton Dunbar. We need to come out of those games healthy because we start in the TRAC with Central. We need to be ready to go for Week 4.”
Dempsey and Central are in the same boat as they look to the Sept. 19 showdown, which could ultimately determine the TRAC champion.
“Defensively, we’re replacing some key talent,” Dempsey said. “We’ve got some good talent coming up through the ranks, but we’re inexperienced there, and we open up with a tough schedule.
“We play Warren [Mich.] De La Salle, which is ranked No. 7 in Michigan’s Super 25, and then we play Southview and Perrysburg before the TRAC with Whitmer. We hope these kids are ready for the challenge.”
If Whitmer or Central should stumble, St. Francis may be waiting in the wings with standout running back Lamar Carswell leading the way.
And the upstart Lima Senior Spartans (5-5, 4-3), who made great strides in 2013 under first-year coach Mike Fell, look to climb further this season.
The Spartans are paced by senior running back Juniel Liles (1,500 yards, 17 TDs) and junior receivers Ruben Flowers (over 1,000 receiving yards, 10 TDs) and Demontay Liles, who totaled more than 1,300 yards between receiving and returns.
“We’re excited about the upcoming season and hope to compete for the league title and make the state playoffs,” said Fell, whose team returns seven starters on both offense and defense.