Talawanda High School’s football team wouldn’t mind another stunning start in the Southwest Ohio Conference.
The Braves began the 2016 season with an 0-4 mark, then kicked off SWOC play with a wild 45-44 victory over Little Miami.
A year later, Talawanda is 0-4 once again and preparing for a conference opener on the road against the Panthers.
“Right now, we’re healthy and ready to roll. It’s SWOC week,” Braves coach J.D. Vonderheide said. “Records being the same, I feel we’re a much better football team than we were in 2016 at this point. Now we’ve got to go out and prove it.”
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Talawanda has been better the last two weeks in losses to Eaton (22-7) and New Richmond (35-14) after kicking off the year by taking beatings from Madison (44-0) and Badin (46-0).
Sophomore quarterback Adam Crank said the Braves are determined to start winning again. Since qualifying for the Division III playoffs in 2014, Talawanda is 2-23.
“We were expecting to win the first couple games and stay on a roll, but it hasn’t happened,” Crank said. “But it’s going to happen. We’re going to start winning games.”
Little Miami coach Nate Mahon said last year’s result is a good-enough reason on its own to take the Braves seriously.
“By no means are we taking them lightly,” Mahon said. “Coach Vonderheide’s one of my good friends. He’s one of the smartest guys in the business. He’ll put a good offensive package together and have those guys ready to go.”
The Panthers are 3-1 and started SWOC play with a 20-14 loss to Mt. Healthy last week. And Little Miami played without junior tailback/cornerback Lucas Patten, the top rusher in the conference last season with 1,531 yards.
Mahon believes Patten, who has 40 rushes for 255 yards and five touchdowns in two games, will be able to play against Talawanda after suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 2.
“We are expecting him to play. It’s just a matter of how much we’re going to use him and where,” Mahon said.
The Panthers rushed for just 60 yards in the Mt. Healthy game, but gave themselves a chance to win behind the passing of sophomore quarterback Brody Reder, who was 13 of 27 for 183 yards and two TDs.
Reder’s emergence as an aerial threat will allow Little Miami to lighten Patten’s running load. Mahon brought a spread offensive approach to the program when he took over last season.
“The more that Brody grasps and the more that he matures, the more that we’ll do with him,” the Panthers coach said. “He really had a coming-out party last week against one of the best defenses I think we’ll see all year.
“We’re trying to rebound from a game that we feel like we could’ve won. We played Mt. Healthy about as good as we could, but came up six points short. We need something to get that bad taste out of our mouths.”
It’s homecoming week for Little Miami, with a good crowd expected at Hi-Five Field. The Panthers have already equaled last year’s win total.
Reder is 24 of 51 for 408 yards with four TDs and two picks. Crank is 49 0f 106 for 390 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions.
“His numbers are relatively modest for a varsity starting quarterback, but we’ve been really pleased with his progress,” Vonderheide said of Crank, who also leads Talawanda on the ground with 220 yards and a touchdown on 48 carries.
Crank threw for 103 yards and a score while running 14 times for 133 yards and a touchdown against New Richmond. The Braves trailed 35-0 at halftime.
“We came in here and challenged them to play with some pride and some heart,” Vonderheide said. “We weren’t going to change who we are. We were going to stick to the process, and Crank was the leader of that in the second half. He really led the troops when it would’ve been real easy for the kids to shut it down.”
For Crank, getting acclimated to the speed of varsity football is something he continues to work on.
“It happens a lot quicker,” he said. “You’ve got to be smarter with what you do.”
Said Vonderheide, “He came off the sideline Week 1 against Madison and said, ‘Boy, it’s going pretty fast.’ You anticipate that from a sophomore. When the lights turn on Friday night, they’re pretty bright. I will say this: I’ve not backed down anything we do because of him. We’re coaching him like he’s a senior, and he’s getting better and better.”
The sixth-year coach said Talawanda has been hardened by its nonconference schedule and could make some noise in the SWOC.
“Some of our best football will be played in the next six weeks,” Vonderheide said. “We’re growing. We’re maturing. We’re leaving in my estimation way too many plays out on the field, but we’re right there. We’re way, way closer than probably what the scores indicate to getting this thing going. Nobody can sleep on anybody in this league, including us.”