Three-peat is Edgewood High School’s football mentality this season.
The Cougars have won the last two Southwest Ohio Conference championships and are 2018 favorites as well, having finished first in the preseason SWOC coaches poll.
“It’s different than when you’re chasing. Now you’re the one being chased,” Edgewood coach Scott Clemmons said. “You can’t rest off the last two years’ teams because it’s a different year with different people. You’ve got to have the mind-set of re-gearing up. When we start playing the games, that’s when it will be decided by the young men that put in the work and the time.”
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Unbeaten in conference play over the last two seasons, the Cougars received six first-place votes. Harrison got the other No. 1 vote and finished second in the poll, followed (in order) by Mount Healthy, Little Miami, Northwest, Talawanda and Ross.
Edgewood and Mount Healthy are the only two programs that own SWOC titles — the Owls won the first four. Harrison has placed second the last five seasons.
The Cougars finished 8-2 in 2017, barely missing the Division II playoffs. They return ground-chewing seniors Wade Phillips (172 carries, 1,358 yards) and Elijah Williams (141 carries, 916 yards), along with senior quarterback Corbin Craft (23-of-38, 389 yards).
“It always comes down to those guys up front,” said Clemmons, who lost three offensive linemen to graduation. “Those guys don’t get the recognition they deserve, but that’s where it all starts. It’s those six guys putting in the grunt work and coming together.”
The EHS defense was hit harder by graduation. The Cougars gave up a SWOC-best 176.3 yards per game last year.
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“The boys have done all the things we’ve asked them to do in the spring and summer,” Clemmons said. “They’ve been very coachable. I think they’ve really jelled as a team.”
Butler County’s other two SWOC squads didn’t fare nearly as well in the voting, but Talawanda coach J.D. Vonderheide and Ross coach Kenyon Commins are both optimistic about their teams’ prospects.
Talawanda and Ross were both 1-9 last season. THS ended the season with a rainy 10-8 victory over the Rams.
“Until we win, I wouldn’t anticipate anything else,” Vonderheide said of Talawanda’s spot in the poll. “We like where we’re at regardless of what the public opinion is. If we stay healthy, we’re definitely going to surprise some people.”
The Braves will be a junior-dominated team after taking their lumps with a talented group of sophomores in 2017. Vonderheide has 20 juniors on his roster, and 15 started last year.
Among the top returnees are junior quarterback Adam Crank, who threw for 1,339 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago, and junior middle linebacker Dalton Norris.
“Last year I played all the sophomores one way trying to protect them. This year, we’re going to play our best 11, which may mean a few more kids have got to go both ways,” Vonderheide said.
“You roll the dice when you play a bunch of sophomores because you don’t want to ruin them and give them a sour taste because they’ve lost. I can honestly say that wasn’t the case. They needed to see that speed. We saw continued improvement throughout the year, and we’ve had a great offseason. They’re bigger. They’re faster. They’re stronger.”
Commins wasn’t discouraged by Ross’ record last year or the Rams’ last-place showing in the poll this year.
“We haven’t earned the right to be voted any higher. We haven’t proven anything yet,” said Commins, starting his second season at the RHS helm. “But I’m much happier with our overall team strength this year. We’re still not where I think we need to be, but we are vastly improved from last year.
“I think up front we’re a ton better with understanding the offense, and defensively, I think we’re light years ahead of where we were last year. We have more competition at every spot than I think I’ve seen since my years at Mount Healthy. We’re got a sophomore class that is literally pushing seniors more than I could ever imagine.”
Commins remains committed to the triple-option offense and said the quarterback job is an up-for-grabs battle between senior Dylan Caldwell, juniors Ethan Gerhardt and Ethan Hall, and sophomore C.J. Boze. Caldwell, a returning fullback, led the Rams in rushing last season with 727 yards on 197 carries.
“The triple option … that’s not going anywhere. That’s our identity,” Commins said. “I’m ecstatic about how we’ve grown with the triple this year. Up front is probably the biggest improvement area.
“I’m anxious to get back out there and see what kind of improvement we’ve had. I want to see if what I think is happening is really happening.”
SWOC: The Vote
Here’s how the coaches voted in the preseason Southwest Ohio Conference football poll, with point totals and first-place votes (in parentheses):
1. Edgewood (6) 48
2. Harrison (1) 40
3. Mount Healthy 36
4. Little Miami 26
5. Northwest 18
6. Talawanda 16
7. Ross 12