WAVERLY — Truth be told, Tigers are accustomed to being hunters —not the hunted.
However, for these Waverly Tigers, they are the ones now wearing the target atop the Southern Ohio Conference Division II.
But, according to ninth-year head coach Chris Crabtree, lofty expectations and quality seasons have become the standard in Waverly — and now it’s just more than reaching that proverbial mountaintop.
It’s about staying there, as the Tigers unseated six-time defending division champion Wheelersburg to win the SOC II title — and essentially assure themselves of their first undefeated regular season since that same year of 2006.
Waverly won two state playoff games for the first time in school history as well, and it took a last-second field goal in the Region 16 semifinals against the top-ranked team in all of Division IV Clinton-Massie to end the Tigers’ eight-game win streak.
“Going clear back to 2016 when we first started making the playoffs regularly, maybe we were too satisfied in just getting there. We didn’t do very well once we got there. But now we’re to the point where winning multiple playoff games is our goal. Last year was key. We’re not just satisfied getting there. We want to get there and make as deep a run as we can,” said Crabtree. “Our first and foremost goal is always to win the league. We feel if we do that, then everything else is going to take care of itself. We’ll make the playoffs and just go out and make that run. That’s an expectation for us now. It’s a standard that we have set and we want to keep.”
Last season’s senior class of 13 can be considered that ultimate breakthrough group, which included both the Southeast District Division IV Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker Zeke Brown AND Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Haydn’ Shanks.
Both Tigers automatically made first-team all-Ohio as a result, while offensive lineman Andrew Welch was an all-state third-teamer —and all-purpose performer Phoenix Wolf was an Honorable Mention wide receiver.
Two other starting linemen, Spencer Pollard and Aiden Diehl, also graduated.
Those senior Tigers reached the state playoffs for four consecutive seasons, finally winning two games in the Cincinnati-centric Region 16.
But likely their biggest win was over visiting Wheelersburg in overtime, as the Tigers took the classic gamble of going for the two-point conversion after scoring their OT TD —and converting it for the victory.
“That was a group of kids that all played together for years, came through the system, and it all worked out for them with the successful senior season that they had,” said Crabtree. “Trying to replace some of those guys is going to be difficult, but I do believe we have some guys who can make up the difference. It may take multiple guys to do it in certain spots like with Zeke Brown and Phoenix Wolf being replaced on defense, but we’re shuffling some guys around just to fill in some of the losses. We’re trying to find the best pieces to the puzzle that we have.”
Of the estimated 68-man roster with 14 total starters returning including eight on defense, Mark Stulley — a first-team all-district defensive back — switches from a safety to an overhang outside linebacker, with Penn Morrison moving to safety from cornerback and Cai Marquez coming back at corner.
All three are seniors, as Crabtree — beginning his 27th season with Waverly’s program and last year’s Division IV district Coach of the Year — said “two or three guys at that linebacker position” are expected to replace Brown.
“Filling that linebacker void is probably our biggest defensive concern,” said the coach.
That’s because the front four all return —with Wyatt Crabtree and (6-2, 205, jr.) Will Futhey (6-5, 205, sr.) filling the end spots.
Crabtree collected 46 total tackles with 16 for loss and seven-and-a-half sacks, and recovered two fumbles.
Futhey finished with 38-and-a-half tackles and six-and-a-half for loss, but of course the tall senior standout once again made his mark — and earned second-team all-Ohio — as a wide receiver.
Futhey, from the starter Shanks and twin brother Wade Futhey, finished with 44 receptions for 865 yards and 13 touchdowns —an average of almost 20 yards per reception in nine games.
Shanks completed 180 passes on 268 attempts last season with 31 touchdowns and six interceptions —completing 67-percent of his passes for 2,574 yards with an average of 286 yards per game.
Wade Futhey, who will take over for the three-year starter Shanks for his senior campaign, completed a half-dozen of his dozen attempts a year ago with two touchdowns and 150 yards.
Coach Crabtree discussed the quarterback transition, as Wade Futhey further benefits from the Tigers returning three of their leading wideouts.
While Wolf was actually the receptions leader with 58 for 674 yards and nine scores, the 6-4 Morrison (39 receptions, 554 yards and 3 TD) and the 6-5 Will Futhey give Wade Futhey tall targets —along with Stulley (5 receptions, 117 yards, 1TD).
Brown, as the team’s tight end, amassed 31 receptions for 394 yards and seven touchdowns.
Wyatt Crabtree, senior J.T. Barnett and freshman Braylon Robinson rotate at tight end this season —as the slot man Stulley can also play the H-back.
“Wade is going to be our quarterback, and although he doesn’t have a lot of experience, he has worked really hard in the offseason and done a good job of taking in the offense,” said Coach Crabtree. “He has a good supporting cast to throw the ball to, and we should have a number of people in the backfield to help him in the running game. I’m excited for Wade, because he has been very patient and in the wait there. Now it’s his turn, and I think he is ready for this opportunity. If he makes the right decisions and has time to get the ball out, he is going to have a lot of weapons with him out there.”
Of course, it helps to have his twin brother and two-time all-stater to throw to —along with Morrison.
“It’s going to be cool for them, and we’re excited to see those two connect with each other,” said Crabtree. “Wade will get some security in that regard. Will is a very competitive individual, is a great route runner and a hard worker. And Penn Morrison has really good hands, and he causes teams problems. He had a really good year for us last year.”
A healthy Dawson Shoemaker should be the featured back, along with Jase Hurd and perhaps Peyton Harris by midseason — as Harris is currently out injured.
Brock Adams (6-2, 305, jr.) is the lone returning starter along the offensive line — as sophomore Nate Welsh will be the center, with juniors Jacob Sherrick and Logan Long likely starting at tackle or guard.
Also in the mix are sophomores Jake Schrader and Jace Gecowets, and senior Zak Green.
“The offensive line is an area we’re trying to fill out and figure out what our best combinations are,” said Crabtree. “We’re not as big overall as we were last year, but definitely more athletic. Once the experience comes along, these guys will just be as good as those seniors were. That was a group last year that had three full years of experience working together. But from a skill set and understanding and knowledge of the game, these guys are pretty good.”
And, it should be expected —as is the standard now with Waverly —that the Tigers will be good again.
Prior to defense of their SOC II championship, the Tigers tangle with nearby non-league neighbors — Miami Trace, Unioto, Chillicothe and Washington Court House.
Sandwiched in between is a home date with Division V power Johnstown-Monroe.
“I’m excited we are getting a full season in and it’s nice to be back in the flow of things working with this group of kids,” said Crabtree. “Our theme this year is ‘Keep Steering’. A lot of people think we lost a lot of people, so this year will be tougher. But by keep steering, you can get through those rough waters and adversity at times. We instill in our guys to just do their jobs and control what they can control.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved