WILLOW WOOD — There will be no surprise party this season.
Two years ago, the Symmes Valley Vikings were 4-6 and just 1-5 in the Southern Ohio Conference.
Predictions had the Vikings fighting to stay out of last place in the league last season, but they surprised everyone by not only winning the SOC I, but going 9-2 with a Division VII playoff berth.
The Vikings’ 20-year veteran head coach Rusty Webb isn’t worried about any predictions as usual.
He’s more concerned with battling low numbers among his linemen and keeping his team healthy.
Another concern is the loss of all-Ohio quarterback Jack Leith to graduation, and thus leaving a big void.
“Anytime you lose your quarterback and leader, it’s tough. But we have a lot of guys back and we think our experience is going to help us,” said Webb.
“The kids have practiced well with all the uncertainty. The kids have done an outstanding job getting themselves ready. But we have to stay healthy.”
Senior Luke Leith (6-3, 180) will shift from end to quarterback to fill the void left by the graduation of his brother Jack.
Also in the mix are junior Grayson Walsh and sophomore Aleck Beckett (6-1, 175).
“He’s (Luke Leith) doing well. His ball-handling keeps getting better and his understanding of the offense has gotten better every single day. He’s just gaining confidence,” said Webb.
All-Ohio halfback Josh Ferguson leads a stable of running backs. The 5-10, 185-pound senior ran for more than 1,000 yards last season.
Also in the mix are juniors Ethan Patterson (6-2, 165), Nick Strow (5-10, 170), sophomore Levi Ross (5-4, 135) and junior Grayson Walsh (5-10, 185).
The fullback will be senior Derek Crum (5-7, 195) and junior Levi Niece (5-7, 180).
“We have six to seven running backs who can all run the ball,” said Webb. “All our backs have to block. In order to get the ball, you have to block. Our kids have always bought into that.”
The end candidates are senior Caleb Mullens (6-2, 220), freshman Brayden Webb (6-3, 205) and senior Drew Scherer (6-0, 135) who is a first-year player but has been a two-year starter in basketball.
Sophomore Seth Ulery (5-6, 170) could see some playing time with Leith a possibility to return to end if needed.
The offensive line lost Dwayne Eplin, but the rest of lineup remains in place.
Junior Tanner McComas (6-0, 265) returns at center and he will be flanked at the guards by another pair of returning starters in junior Gavan Yates (6-0, 290) and junior Eli Patterson (6-1, 185).
Both tackles return with senior Kayson Adkins (6-0, 240) on one side, and sophomore Isaac Ross (6-0, 220) on the other.
“We have a lot of experience on the offensive line, but we’re really thin there,” said Webb. “We’re hoping to rotate our tackles and keep them fresh. If someone gets hurt, we’ll be forced to move some people around.”
Yates, Adkins and McComas figure to be the tackles with Ross and senior Houston Bennett (5-10, 275) providing backup help.
Eli Patterson, Niece, Webb and freshman Ayden Taylor are all in the rotation at defensive end.
“We like to have several people rotating on defense to keep people fresh. Almost all of our players are going both ways,” said Coach Webb.
Mullens returns at inside linebacker to anchor that group with Crum going from defensive end to linebacker.
Beckett is in the mix and gained experience by playing on the inside last season.
Sophomore Gary Combs (5-9, 160) is another possibility on the inside.
“I think our linebacker group is very solid in there. We like what we’re seeing and, again, we have a lot of experience even if someone is at a different spot,” said Coach Webb.
On the outside will be returning starter Strow, Walsh and freshman Sam McClease (5-8, 155).
All three starters in the secondary return with Ferguson and Ethan Patterson at the cornerback spots and Leith at safety.
Coach Webb said experience will be key with the group, but he noted that Scherer, freshman Luke Niece (5-8, 165) and Levi Ross are all capable backups.
“We’re very happy with what we have with that (secondary) group. We think we can rotate some guys and rest some people,” said Coach Webb.
SOUTHERN OHIO CONFERENCE
Although the Vikings surprised everyone by winning the league last season and upsetting Northwest, Webb doesn’t expect to sneak up on anyone this season.
“Northwest is a Division V school so they’re obviously the favorite,”he said. “Eastern has a lot back. Basically, most of the league has a lot of people back. I think the only group that was senior-heavy last year was Green.”