By Josh Brown
COVINGTON — The Covington football team entered 2017 knowing that it could be a milestone season.
And even though the Buccaneers did reach that program milestone, they also saw a lengthy postseason streak come to an end.
In the end, the young Buccs — who had graduated 13 players off of the previous year’s 11-1 team and had to cope with a tougher-than-usual schedule on top of that fact — won the 500th game in the program’s history but were still handcuffed by a slow start, beginning the season on a three-game losing streak and eventually finishing 5-5, snapping a 12-year streak of a appearances in the OHSAA regional playoffs.
Covington knew the season would be tough going in after losing that large graduating class, including school record-setting quarterback Nathan Blei, rushing leader Lance Miller and defensive leader Deron White. In addition to that, the Buccs had to deal with moving up a division due to the OHSAA’s competitive balance realignment, landing in Division VI, Region 24 — arguably the toughest small-school region in the state, already boasting reigning D-VI state champion Marion Local and seeing four-time defending D-V state champion Coldwater move down, along with a few other changes.
Meanwhile, the Buccs entered the season with more than two-thirds of the team being either freshmen or sophomores — so there was plenty of potential mixed in with the inexperience.
“Fifty kids, and it’s hard to be upset about that with 21 sophomores and 14 freshmen,” Covington coach Ty Cates said before the season, which was to be his second as the team’s coach. “Thiry-five of our 50 kids are underclassmen, so the future looks bright at Covington.”
Those young Buccs were immediately thrown into the fire, though, with St. Henry, Minster and Fort Loramie up first on the docket.
First up was St. Henry, the fourth straight season Covington has opened against the Redskins. And four costly turnovers by the Buccs led to a rare occurence — Covington posting negative total rushing yards in a game with negative-14 yards on the ground — in a 37-7 loss. It dropped the Buccs to 2-2 over the past four years in openers against St. Henry.
Next up was Minster, the previous season’s D-VII state runner-up. The Wildcats — who would go on to win the D-VII state championship in 2017 — handed the Buccs their second straight loss, 28-0, as Covington fell to 0-2 to start a season for the first time since 1991.
The Buccs finished off their brutal three-game stretch to start the season with their Cross County Conference opener against the league’s newest member, Fort Loramie. And while Covington began to show signs of realizing its potential, cutting the Redskins’ lead to one score with 1:10 left in the game and then recovering an onside kick, Loramie was able to shut down the Bucc offense and hold on for a 28-21 victory.
Covington ended that three-game skid in Week 4 against Tri-County North, a team that had been one of the CCC’s contenders for the past few years, as sophomore quarterback Cade Schmelzer scored a pair of rushing touchdowns in a 20-7 victory. And in Week 5, the Buccs got one win away from the .500 mark with a dominant showing against Arcanum, winning 41-21.
In Week 6, though, came Covington’s biggest test of the season — rival Miami East. The Buccs held their own against the Vikings in the first half, only trailing by one point at 13-12. East ran off 21 unanswered points to begin the second half, though, building a 34-12 lead with 5:55 remaining in the fourth quarter. But Schmelzer hit Andrew Cates with a 17-yard touchdown pass with 4:51 to go, then after an onside kick, the duo hooked up again on an 18-yard score to cut the Vikings’ lead to 34-26 with 3:36 to go.
The Buccs recovered yet another onside kick, but the offense stalled and turned it over on downs with 1:55 to go. Miami East punted the ball back to the Buccs for one final chance with 50 seconds left, but that punt rolled dead on Covington’s 1-yard line, and a hail mary from midfield as time expired fell incomplete to allow the Vikings to escape with the win.
Covington then had to deal with Bethel in Week 7, a team that was experiencing a resurgence of its own. Bethel took a 6-0 lead after a lengthy opening drive, but the Buccs answered with Schelmzer hitting Ty Freeman with a 49-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter to put Covington up 7-6. But with 2:42 left in the half, Bethel senior quarterback Jacob Evans hit Jacob Ullmer with a 56-yard touchdown passto give the Bees a 12-7 lead. From there, no one scored in the second half, with a Bethel interception in the final minute sealing the 12-7 win — Bethel’s first over the Buccs’ since 2004.
With the playoffs pretty much out of reach for the 2-5 Buccs at that point, Covington began the march to a program milestone in Week 8 with a 63-0 shutout of Bradford — the team’s 499th win in its lengthy history. That also allowed the 500th win to fittingly come on Senior Night in Week 9 as Covington dominated Twin Valley South 56-13.
“It’s pretty awesome. To get it on Senior Night, that’s special,” Cates said. “These seniors will always remember their last game on Smith Field … I know this group of seniors will remember their Senior Night forever, especially considering it come on the school’s 500th win.”
That left one final game to get back to the .500 mark on the season, and it was also a memorable one as Covington senior Zach Parrett swatted away a pass in the game’s closing seconds as the Buccs held off National Trail 7-6 in a rainy, muddy mess of a road game to end the season on a high note with a three-game winning streak.
While 2016’s undefeated regular season was the Buccs’ first since 2013, the .500 record was the first time Covington didn’t post a winning record since it went 5-5 in 2004. The last time the Buccs posted a losing record was in 1994, when they went 4-6.
And of Covington’s five losses in 2017, four were to playoff teams — and the combined record of those five opponents was 43-15. Still, the team’s youth was a factor — and with the strong way the Buccs finished the season, it gives an idea of what those young players can do with their talent once experience has been added to the mix.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.