Lebanon made its first playoff appearance in 15 years in 2016, but graduated 17 starters from that team and had just one returner on offense last year. The youth and inexperience showed as the Warriors closed the season with one win in their last seven games and finished 0-3 in the GWOC National West.
With several returning players, Hopkins is hoping the experience last year proves beneficial in the effort to once again be competitive.
“They were very junior heavy in the skill positions, but those kids grew up and are seniors now,” Hopkins said. “Everyone frets about playing young kids, and you take your lumps. But by the time they are seniors they are experienced, they’re not deer in the headlights on Friday, and that’s an advantage. We have seniors at key positions, but a nice mix of underclassmen, and our senior class has good leadership and they are helping bring those kids along and getting them ready for Friday night.”
Although Hopkins tried to build on what Lebanon was already doing, he is renewing a focus on the ground game. Lamb, who had some exceptionally strong throwing quarterbacks, had hoped to be more balanced last year but once again ended up relying more on the aerial attack.
Hopkins wants to control the clock with a stable of running backs and open up the passing game from there.
“We want to keep the opposing defense on the field as long as possible,” Hopkins said. “If you run the ball well, that frees you up to do some different things, so that’s the game plan, but we’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
PREP FOOTBALL PRESEASON POLLS
The Warriors lost leading rusher Brendan Lamb (334 yards rushing and five touchdowns) to a transfer, but Hopkins has four players ready to step up and carry the ball in different situations. Sophomore Keith Farr, the leader so far this preseason, senior Paul Anderson, and junior fullbacks Jack Hensley and Reid Low will give Lebanon a nice rotation in the backfield.
Lebanon also benefits from the return of senior quarterback Kyle Short, who threw for 1,453 yards and 18 touchdowns as a first-year starter last season, and senior wide receiver Derrick Allen, who was his main target with 696 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns.
The biggest question on offense is how quickly the offensive line grows up. Senior Luke Lane is the lone returning starter up front, playing guard and sometimes center, but Hopkins looks forward to bringing along some young players that he will be able to work with for the next couple of years.
Sophomore Eric West especially is showing potential.
“We only have one senior on the line, so we are young and going to take our lumps but we’ll have them around for a while so I’m excited to see what that group can do,” Hopkins said.
Lebanon’s biggest strength could be on defense, though. The Warriors have three or four new starters stepping in to join some talented returners on that side of the ball, where five seniors, five juniors and a sophomore are starting.
Among the top contributors are senior defensive lineman Adam Creech, linebacker Nick Straw and defensive back Caleb Newman. Straw has several colleges looking at him for football, and Newman is a top lacrosse recruit.
“I feel a renewed sense of urgency and importance on that side of the ball,” Hopkins said. “We’ve really focused on that side, and we have some good players.”
Hopkins knows he’s in for a big challenge this season moving from a small school to a Division I program in a tough region.
He looks forward to the competition the GWOC brings and believes his players do too.
“You want to play the best, and the GWOC has that week in and week out,” Hopkins said. “We are going to take it in stride. I want to instill in these kids not to back down on anything. We want to be mentioned with the Centervilles and the Waynesvilles of the conference, but we have to earn that right. I think these guys are ready to put fort the effort to be competitive and to make it a great year.”
Coach: Matt Hopkins, first season (25-35 in six years at Preble Shawnee, 25-35 overall)
OHSAA designation: Division I, Region 4
Playoff history: 11-8 in 9 appearances (1980, 1988, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2016)
2017 record: 3-7 overall, 0-3 in the Greater Western Ohio Conference National West Division (fourth)
Schedule: Aug. 24 — at Kings, 7 p.m.; Aug. 31 — Loveland, 7 p.m.; Sept. 7 — at West Clermont, 7 p.m.; Sept. 14 — Beavercreek, 7 p.m.; Sept. 21 — at Springfield, 7 p.m.; Sept. 28 — at Northmont, 7 p.m.; Oct. 5 — Centerville, 7 p.m.; Oct. 12 — Miamisburg, 7 p.m.; Oct. 19 — at Stebbins, 7 p.m.; Oct. 26 — Springboro, 7 p.m.