High school football: Butler County storylines to watch as 2021 season begins this week

Lakota West's Alex Afari catches a pass during their football game against Hamilton Friday, Sept. 13, 2019 at Virgil M. Schwarm Stadium in Hamilton. Lakota West won 33-13. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

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Lakota West's Alex Afari catches a pass during their football game against Hamilton Friday, Sept. 13, 2019 at Virgil M. Schwarm Stadium in Hamilton. Lakota West won 33-13. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

The high school football season officially gets underway this week, as area teams begin their quest for a state championship.

Unlike last year, not all teams will qualify for the playoffs in 2021, but the field has expanded to 16 schools per region, greatly increasing the chances of making it. The Ohio High School Athletic Association approved this year’s football tournament regulations during its April Board meeting, which also changed the format of regional playoffs so the higher seeded team will host first- and second-round games, instead of only the first round, before neutral sites are used.

Last year all 709 teams qualified for the playoffs because of the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the season and prevent many teams from getting in all their scheduled games. The OHSAA received positive feedback about the experience and decided to give the opportunity for more schools to make the playoffs this year, as football is the only state-sanctioned sport where not every team automatically qualifies for the postseason. The expansion will increase the number of football playoff qualifiers from 224 to 448.

As area teams prepare for their openers this week, here are seven storylines to follow this season:

1. Ross building off historical run

The Rams made history in 2020, earning their first Southwest Ohio Conference title and winning playoff games for the first time, and now they will be trying to keep the program competing at a high level.

Matching last year’s dominant run to the Division III regional finals will be difficult, but the program has made strides in coach Kenyon Commin’s first four seasons and this year will be a test to see if the Rams can sustain that after his first class of freshmen graduated the program.

Ross was loaded with seniors last year and now has the task of replacing fullback Jackson Gifford and quarterback C.J. Boze, who combined for 2,733 yards and 40 touchdowns on the ground last season. Senior Brayden Fraasman and junior Jaye Warren showed promise behind those two and should keep the running game churning, but it could take some time for this new group to find its rhythm.

2. Badin brings back weapons

Badin made a postseason run for the third straight year under Nick Yordy and returns most of the firepower from a young squad that won the Greater Catholic League Co-Ed title and finished 7-1 with a third-round Division III playoff appearance in 2020.

Senior quarterback Landyn Vidourek showed promise in his first year as a starting quarterback last year when he threw for 909 yards and eight touchdowns, and he returns along with receivers Lucas Moore and Braedyn Moore and running backs Jack Walsh and Carter Russo.

The Rams have won a greater percentage of games each of the last three seasons since a 5-5 record in Yordy’s first year in 2017, and expectations should remain high.

3. Lakota West loaded again

Lakota West made a deep run last year in Tom Bolden’s second season as coach, claiming the Greater Miami Conference title and advancing to the regional final before suffering its only loss, 10-7, to eventual Division I champion St. Xavier.

The Firebirds return several key pieces from that squad, including a plethora of college prospects, and they get the first crack at the Bombers in the opener as part of the Skyline Chili Showdown.

West returns junior quarterback Mitch Bolden, a pair of Ohio State commits in offensive tackle Tegra Tshabola and defensive back Jyaire Brown, and Kentucky-bound safety Alex Afari, among other talented contributors.

4. Hamilton has room to grow

Despite a challenging 2020 season, the Big Blue made strides in Nate Mahon’s second year, going 6-4 for the program’s first winning record since 2010.

The team graduated 23 seniors and especially has holes to fill at quarterback and in all three levels of the defense, but there is still a solid foundation with players like senior running back and Cal-Berkeley commit Kaleb Johnson, junior receiver Breeon Ishmail and junior linebacker/defensive end Gabe Verdon, who has an offer from Purdue and interest from other Division I schools.

Hamilton seeks to be more competitive in the GMC this year, while also still eying the program’s first Division I playoff win.

5. Middletown still searching

Middletown has kept faith in coach Don Simpson as he continues to try to turn things around. While the culture of the program has taken positive steps forward, the Middies have won just four games over Simpson’s three years and now they are once again hoping progress starts showing in the on-field product.

The Middies haven’t experienced a winning record since 2011, and last year seemed to be the time to turn a corner with a talented senior class that unfortunately couldn’t find a rhythm in a season severely impacted by COVID-19 protocols.

The loss of players like running back/defensive back Josh Bryant and linebacker Cameron Junior leaves big holes but the Middies now are looking for new leaders to emerge.

6. Fairfield back on track?

After a string of successful seasons, Fairfield took an unusual but not entirely unexpected step backward last year with a 2-7 finish – the team’s first losing record since 2012. The Indians featured several young players and couldn’t reload to build off the 2019 team’s achievement of earning the program’s first playoff win since 2000.

But, those players are a year older now and look for better results in 2021. Talon Fisher has potential to be one of the area’s top dual-threat quarterbacks if the pieces come together. He rushed for 915 yards and nine touchdowns on 114 carries as a freshman last year but couldn’t get the aerial attack going.

7. Turning to new coaches

A handful of area teams have new coaches this year that will be looking to get off to a good start.

Larry Cox left Talawanda after two years to take over the vacant head coaching job at Franklin, and Jay Volker now takes over a Braves team that went 3-5 in 2020. Fenwick turned to former Cincinnati Hills Christian coach Mark Mueller after a 1-7 season with George Moore as head coach. And Lakota East alumnus Dan Baker became Madison’s fourth head coach in four years after leaving Lima Perry, where he served as head coach the last three seasons. Jessie Hubbard’s contract was not renewed after one season with the Mohawks.

At Franklin, Cox succeeds Brad Childers, who resigned in December following a 6-4 finish last year and earned playoff berths in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

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