JOHNSTOWN – Darren Waters often has commented about the praise his Licking Heights football team received for a 5-5 season in 2006.
It certainly was not the endpoint the Heights coach had in mind, but in the community, it was seen as a strong second season under Waters. The program’s second playoff appearance followed as the Hornets finished 10-2 the next season.
In the days leading up to Heights’ season finale this past week, Waters continued to reflect on just how far his program had come. The Hornets had two losses by the narrowest of margins during a three-game losing streak, and the proverbial sky was falling despite the Hornets having already clinched a ninth straight non-losing season.
“It says a lot about where we have come as a program and the emphasis we have put on football as a community from the youth league to the middle school and up to the high school,” Waters said. “The standard is obviously higher than 5-5, which is exciting. That is what I wanted when I came here that there is an expectation to be successful year in and year out.”
Certainly, the Hornets were not ready to succumb to a fourth consecutive loss to end the season. With Johnstown playing for a home game in the playoffs, the Hornets instead played with the sense of urgency, making an early touchdown stand up in a 9-6 victory.
Heights’ defense was dominant for the second consecutive week, holding Johnstown to 131 yards after allowing 124 yards to Watkins Memorial. This time, the effort resulted in a victory as Heights had a 3-0 edge in turnovers.
The offense did enough to win, controlling the ball with the running attack in a game that was played through a cold mist. Robbie Moore scored his 13th touchdown of the season in the first quarter.
“Even though we were struggling the last three weeks, our kids never packed it in because they believe in each other and believe in my coaching, and we stuck true to who we are against a good Johnstown team,” Waters said.
After a stretch of games when every mistake seemed to prove costly, Heights played nearly flawlessly. Senior inside linebacker Chris DeLeau, who also carried a big load on offense, recovered the game-clinching fumble during the final seconds.
“It feels great to win with my team and my family,” DeLeau said. “We could have won every game if we played like this.”
With points at a premium, field position played a key role. Senior Luke Kramer had his second consecutive strong punting game.
Kramer punted seven times apiece in the final two games, averaging 36 yards per attempt. He pinned Johnstown at the 3- and 1-yard lines during the second half.
“Two exceptional punts that helped flip the field for us and create points,” Waters said.
Heights rebounded from a lopsided loss against Hamilton Township to win four consecutive games and put themselves in position to compete for a Licking County League-Big School Division title and Division II playoff berth. The Hornets, however, were unable to keep up in a stretch of games against four consecutive postseason qualifiers.
“Something I have to figure out as a head coach is how do you prepare your kids to understand they are everybody’s big game?” Waters said. “I think we will be better next year because we do a great job playing as the underdog. We think we will slide back into that underdog role, but for us to be that program we want, I have to figure out how to get us playing our best football week in and week out when you have that target on your back.”
The Week 10 victory, however, was a good way to finish for a small senior class that was a part of two league championships and playoff seasons.
Those seniors expect Heights to be back battling for the top spot next season. If so, the adversity this fall will have been worth it.
“We’re pushing harder, trying to keep focus and getting the young ones ready for next year,” senior defensive back Mershawn McMahan said. “It will feel like we helped them get back to where they need to be because our team was young, and now they have more experience. They have more experience than we had last year to build on.”