DANVILLE – For the Danville Blue Devils, the 2018 season could be summed up in two words: growing pains.
After returning to the state semifinals for the second time in three years in 2017, graduation took a heavy toll on the program. The Blue Devils were left with a group that had played before, but never on that stage.
They paid the price early.
Danville began the season 0-5, its worst start since 2009. The inexperienced Blue Devils faced four playoff teams in the first five weeks of the season; all but one of their losses were by double digits.
By the time Danville’s green core had it figured out, it was too late. The Blue Devils won four of their last five games, but missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years. After a long run of local dominance, Danville experienced its first losing season in a decade.
“If we could’ve just won a game in there somewhere, heck, we would have made the playoffs because we won four of our last five,” head coach Ed Honabarger said. “I don’t know. It just wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t one of those years.”
This year’s team has an eerily similar feel, as the program graduated eight of its 10 all-conference players from last season. That includes starting quarterback Dalton David; starting tailback Christ Greenawalt; the KMAC’s leading receiver, Corbin Hazen; three top-notch lineman in Brad Wilson, Dylan Wilson and Trenton Vernon; starting defensive back Ethan Hawk; and kicker Reese Dorsey, who is currently playing soccer at Ohio University.
The team’s top four tacklers from last season are included in that bunch as well.
The Blue Devils will once again face a brutal early-season schedule. They’ll face two playoff teams from last year to begin the season – Lucas and Loudonville – before taking on Worthington Christian, which nearly made the playoffs in 2018.
“Our early season schedule… that’s the price you pay for having some successful years,” Honabarger said with a grin.
To avoid another slow start, Honabarger said this year’s team will have to play smart and learn quickly. The Blue Devils will lean on their two returning stars, seniors Alex Holt and Langdon Johnson, on both sides of the ball.
Holt, a second-team all-conference receiver last season, will be featured as a slot receiver on this year’s team. He did a little bit of everything as a junior, as he ran for 226 yards and caught seven touchdown passes, being featured as David’s second option behind Hazen. Holt was fifth on the team with 77 tackles from the defensive back position.
Johnson, also a second-team all-KMAC selection, will play the slot receiver position this year as well. He ran the ball 28 times last year and caught 16 passes. He also recorded 51 tackles last fall at defensive back.
The Blue Devils will try to get Holt and Johnson the ball in space, Honabarger said, where they can make defenders miss.
“I think we have decent speed and athleticism,” Honabarger said. “We’ve gotta be able to get our athletes the ball and make some plays in space. I think that’s a big deal for us.”
Danville will feature another first-year starting quarterback this fall, senior Charlie Cook. Cook played JV quarterback last year, and he backed up the receivers at the varsity level. He’ll be asked to lead the Blue Devil offense against a Lucas defense in Week 1 that shut out three opponents last year – one of them being Danville.
“He did nice the first scrimmage. Smart kid,” Honabarger said of Cook. “But still, it’s different than doing it under the Friday night lights. You’ve just gotta learn on the run. You’ve gotta be able to adapt and learn quick when you finally get to varsity play.”
In his 16th year as Danville’s head coach, Honabarger did not seem overwhelmed by his team’s inexperience. It’s part of the game, he said.
“You’ve just gotta hope a new kid steps up. It’s high school football. Every four years, you’re gonna lose ‘em,” Honabarger said. “So you just hope they get better. The kids improve, they get better through practice. That’s the big thing is having consistent practices.”
Last year, Danville struggled to contend with some of its tougher opponents early on. The Blue Devils lost by 22 to Lucas, 18 to Tiffin Calvert, 23 to Highland and 28 to Northmor. The key this year will be to play smart, physical football, Honabarger said. If the Blue Devils can hang tough early in games, Honabarger believes his team has a chance.
“The biggest thing is, we’ve gotta be able to compete and stay with them. Keep the game close. Obviously, I’d love to just blow them out, but you can’t be built for that every year, like we were back in 2015, when it was 28-0 before you’re six minutes into the game,” Honabarger said.
“So we just need to protect the football, we’ve gotta win turnover battles, we’ve gotta play good defense – which I think we’re capable of playing good defense. And we’ve gotta execute offensively, get the ball to our athletes. If we can do that, we’re going to be real competitive and we’ll have a decent year.”
The KMAC will be loaded again this fall, with East Knox, Northmor and Centerburg returning a bulk of their starters from last season, and Highland ready to defend its title under first-year head coach Matt Jones.
Fortunately for Danville, it won’t face Northmor, Highland and East Knox until the final three weeks of the season, respectively. That will give Honabarger’s team time to grow, and if things go like they did last year, the Blue Devils could be fighting for a conference title and a playoff spot by late October – regardless of how their season starts.
But Danville, with all its new pieces, isn’t focused on that right now. Honabarger and his coaching staff are preaching the old – but effective – ‘one game at a time’ mentality.
“One game at a time, that’s the most important game on your schedule. You can’t overlook anybody or look forward to the next game or something because that’s what bites you in the rear end,” Honabarger said. “That’s the biggest thing, one game at a time. You know, there’s a lot of highs and lows in a sports season, and you can’t get too high and you can’t get too low.”