HEATH ― As the calendar turned to August and Heath was finishing up a long practice, coach Tim Ward had an important message for his team.
"We were within seven points in the fourth quarter of nearly all of our losses, and we couldn't finish the job," he said, after the Bulldogs went 6-5 and drew a low playoff seed in 2022, forced to open the postseason on the road at Wheelersburg.
The good news is, that was with all junior and sophomore starters, who are now seniors and juniors ready to get over the hump and make some history.
"We were on the edge last year, with a really young team," said quarterback Brayden Bayles, one of 16 seniors and several three-year starters. "We had a lot of first-year guys on the field, but that was the best thing that could have happened. We have a big group ready to lead the way, and we've grown up together. I've developed with them and trust them, which gives me confidence in everything I do."
Junior running back-linebacker Connor Corbett, another three-year regular and one of the best two-way players in the Licking County League, is eager to help push the seniors across the finish line.
"It's very special. We've gone through the grind together and worked together," he said. "They want it so bad and are so determined. You can tell by the off-season work we've put in. We want to win the league and win at least four games in the playoffs."
Bayles (6-0, 180) threw for 1,645 yards and ran for 730 more, accounting for 15 touchdowns in 2022.
"He understands where he can bring the best value to the team, and how he can allow other people to bring their best value," Ward said. "He's really grown as a leader, to be fully able to manage games."
Added Corbett: "He's more poised, is bigger and faster, and throws the ball in the best spots."
Leading receiver Conner Toomey (6-0, 170), another three-year starter, caught 37 passes last year, while classmates Daylen McIntyre and Grayson Shumate added 21 receptions apiece. Although Shumate, also a returning starter in the secondary, was lost for the season with a knee injury, juniors Kevin Dunlap and Josh Jones, and sophomore Carter Mason are all 6-1 and bring size to the receiving corps.
"Toomey and I have had a connection since seventh and eighth grade," Bayles said. "Kevin has come a long way and has really worked hard, and Carter looks good and has really great hands. We're pretty balanced, and we know we can share the ball and everyone has bought in together."
The hard-nosed, energetic Corbett (5-7, 180) assures balance in the offense, after running for 844 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore, and also snagging 18 passes. He'll be spelled by classmate Jahki Royster (5-7, 150) and McIntyre, who will also line up in the slot.
Corbett, who also had 106 tackles and is an All-Ohio linebacker, isn't worried he'll get worn down, despite going all out on every play.
"I'm in the best shape I've ever been in," he said. "I run sprints after practice. Vision is one of the biggest things I've tried to work on. I was not the best last year at hitting the holes, and I've tried to get better."
Third-year starter Reece Shriner (5-10, 225) returns at center, leading a line that includes senior classmates Hayden Woodward (6-3, 205) and Ian Miller (6-2, 215) at the tackles and Chase Armstead (5-8, 270) at right guard.
"Armstead has always been aggressive, and this year, he's very aggressive," Shriner said. "It's a lot better mindset, knowing we're seniors and that we've worked together this whole time. We're making sure the younger guys have the right mindset. We're able to switch things up, when we get up to the line. The coaches know we can be good. We know we can be great."
Armstead said the senior class is one of the more confident in recent memory.
"We're a more driven, tight-knit unit," he said. "Our freshman year, we were able to work with a great group of seniors and upperclassmen, and now it's our job to teach the underclassmen what they have to do."
As part of the Bulldogs' plan to go mostly two platoon, returning senior guard Noah Sprague (6-0, 165) has shifted over to defensive end. That means sophomore J.J. Holloway (5-8, 165) and junior Braden Metz (5-8, 155) are vying for the guard spot.
Sprague and McIntyre (5-10, 165), who had five sacks and 12 tackles for loss in 2022, give Heath a pair of athletic defensive ends. Junior Andrew Hartman (5-8, 300) plugs up the middle at nose guard, while senior Diedrich Hess (5-8, 275), Holloway, Metz and Leo Orr also figure into the rotation up front.
The Bulldogs' strength is at linebacker, where junior Tannar Patterson matched Corbett's 106 tackles. Patterson had 11 tackles for loss and two sacks, while Corbett had 10 tackles for loss and three sacks and senior Kaden Green added 80 tackles. Senior Paul Gould, a four-year starter, had 76 tackles and will team with classmate Will Robertson at outside linebacker.
Jones and Royster will man the corners with Dunlap at free safety. Toomey led Heath with five interceptions last year, but will focus on offense as the Bulldogs look to take advantage of their depth and be more fresh late in games. Toomey will also handle place kicking in 2023, while Bayles (35.5 average) returns as punter. He also had a 79-yard punt return TD in 2022.
As has always been the case with Heath, the Bulldogs won't be hesitant to play freshmen. "Our younger guys have a lot of spring in their step," Corbett said. "It makes for competitive practices, and some of those freshmen could help us on defense in the future."
Ward and his staff are fully committed to helping Heath finish games.
"We gave up most of our points in the fourth quarter last year," he said. "It's all about conditioning, mental toughness and sense of urgency. Some of the guys who weren't quite ready last year, are ready this year. Our seniors know this is their last chance to do it. They've knocked on the door. Now, it's time to answer."
At a Glance
Coach: Tim Ward
State Classification: Division V, Region 19
In 2022: 6-5, 4-1 (lost in Division V regional first round)
Key players: Brayden Bayles, Sr., QB; Conner Toomey, Sr., WR; Daylen McIntyre Sr., RB/DL;. Reece Shriner, Sr., OL/DL. Kaden Green, Sr., RB/LB. Connor Corbett Jr., RB/LB; Tannar Patterson, Jr., RB/LB; Kevin Dunlap, Jr., WR/DB.
What to expect: The junior-dominated Bulldogs were disappointed in last year's finish and early playoff exit, but they are now senior-dominated. They're intent on wresting the LCL-Cardinal title back from Newark Catholic and making a long playoff run. Led by three-year starters in quarterback Brayden Bayles and wideout Conner Toomey, and dynamic running back-linebacker Connor Corbett, Heath has the talent and experience to meet its high expectations.
Game to watch: Week 9 at Newark Catholic — This game always seems to be for the Cardinal championship and higher playoff seeding, and this year should prove to be no exception.
Postseason outlook: With perennial powerhouses Ironton, Wheelersburg and Harvest Prep in its region, Heath would like nothing better than to get a high postseason seed and build momentum with a pair of home wins, much like it did two years ago. Big early games against Licking Valley and new opponent Creston Norwayne (8-4 last season) and the late showdown with NC will likely determine that fate.
This article originally appeared on Newark Advocate: With expansive senior class, Heath feeling heightened sense of urgency