PATASKALA – Darren Waters jokes he would be a good coach if he could figure how to ensure his team avoids “rough patches.”
Everything is relative. Many coaches would love to have Heights’ bumps in the roads since Waters took over.
The Hornets have not had a losing season since 2005, Waters’ first, and they rebounded from their two worst since ’07 in championship fashion. Heights regrouped after a 6-4 season in 2014, winning the Licking County League-Buckeye Division title and riding a nine-game winning streak into the Division II regional semifinals.
“It was important for the kids that are coming back to right the ship,” Waters said. “The coaches also do a great job of reflecting on the previous year and looking at things we can do better and looking at things we can do that are going to take advantage of the athletes that we have coming back and challenging themselves to work harder.”
This past offseason was not the first time Heights promised a renewed commitment to developing a passing game. The Hornets, however, for the first time stuck with it. Gabe Caldwell threw for more than 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns.
The spread attack gave Heights that extra dimension when locked into tight games against Newark Catholic, Watkins Memorial and St. Charles. The Hornets then used it to run away from Licking Valley in the winner-take-all regular-season finale.
“We felt we had the personnel coming back that we would be able to throw the ball around and really truly spread the field horizontally and vertically,” Waters said. “We were excited about having a two-year starter at quarterback. … We put a lot of time into it in the summer as far as what we did in our 7-on-7s and the way we structured our camp days.”
Waters often talks of relying on a veteran coaching staff that includes Kim Waaland, his coach at Tri-Valley, and Jeff Boyer as a sounding board. The Hornets were not a championship team in August, and September did not start out quite so well with a loss to Hamilton Township.
Heights held Newark Catholic out of the end zone late in a Week 4 victory that seemed to spark the Hornets. After a victory against Watkins Memorial in Week 6, they were off and running.
Powering the winning streak was a defense that allowed virtually nothing during the second half of the season. Question marks in the front seven turned into exclamation points.
“Chasen Neff and Tosh Hayes, we came away from our first game feeling that our inside linebacker play was going to be a weakness, and by the end of the season, I think you could say it was a strength. Those kids just got better every week,” Waters said. “Our defensive line, we challenged them to really use their hands better to attack blockers on the snap.”
Early in Waters’ tenure, the Hornets were the big fish in the small pond. It took until 2012 for Heights to beat nemesis West Jefferson and win the Mid-State League-Cardinal Division. The Hornets then were questioned about their performance in two Division II playoff losses in ’12 and ’13.
This season, the Hornets beat perennially strong St. Charles, Valley for the first time since the reformation of the LCL and Wooster, a team that was making a return trip to the postseason, before taking Ohio Capital Conference-Ohio Division foe Worthington Kilbourne to the wire in a 17-14 loss.
“That’s what already has the drive going for me, and I already have kids coming to me asking when are we going to get started in the weight room because they know how close it was,” Waters said. “That regional championship is still going to be out there in front of us next year.”
- 2014 Randy Baughman, Licking Valley
- 2013 Bill Franks, Newark Catholic
- 2012 Darren Waters, Licking Heights
- 2011 Mike Carter, Johnstown