ADA — It was one of those years at Ohio Northern.
Several times it appeared the Polar Bears were on the path to victory, when suddenly the bottom would drop out via a key turnover or other snafu.
In the end, the Polar Bears finished 5-5 (5-4 in the Ohio Athletic Conference). That was coming off a 9-3 year in 2015.
“When you look at the three games we lost in the fourth quarter, you scratch your head a little bit, and two of them were with a double-digit lead,” ONU coach Dean Paul said. “You don’t want to overanalyze things, but you try to learn lessons. I think the biggest lesson we look at is we need to play smarter. We need to play with more discipline. We also have to develop more depth.’’
However, Paul wasn’t shy to point out that his team did finish 5-5.
“You have to own 5-5. It’s not what our expectations are,” Paul said. “We knew we were better than that.’’
ONU middle linebacker Zach Schmerge (Wapakoneta) said his team learned a lesson after last year.
“We felt like we never finished all 10 games last year,” Schmerge said. “We’ve been working on finishing everything we do. … As you talk about the OAC, the gap between No. 1 and No. 10, it’s all about the little things. The gap is not very big, but it’s all about the teams that can focus on the little things and bring all 22 guys, or 30 guys in the rotation, to believe.’’
ONU returns eight starters on offense and three on defense.
The offense line will be a strength with four returning starters in guard Nate Jones right tackle Carter Kemper, guard Kyle Gonterman and center Wil Rankin (Wapakoneta). Jones was second team all-OAC.
Junior Sam Shook started all 12 games at left tackle in 2015 and returns from a broken foot he suffered last year.
“We have a pretty experienced group, which is different from last year, especially after Sam got hurt,” Paul said.
Shook said, “It’s (the foot) 100 percent now. … But sitting out last year was hard. It’s the first time (since fourth grade) I went through a fall without putting on the pads. I ended up helping coach the JV team, which ended up being a blast.’’
Junior Will Freed is back at quarterback. He was second team all-OAC last year.
In 10 games, Freed completed 190 of 324 for 2,330 yards. He threw 23 TDs and had eight interceptions.
“He throws a great ball and his fundamentals are outstanding,” Paul said. “He has good arm strength and a good grasp of our offense. He just needs to be more consistent with his decisions.’’
Sophomore running back Christian Williams (Anna) burst on the scene as a freshman last year, running for 1,256 yards (6.3 average) with 13 total TDs.
Williams ran for 100 yards in all nine of his games and was named first team all-OAC. He also had 30 receptions for 343 yards.
Gone is last year’s leading wide receiver Reed Allen, who had 44 receptions for 617 yards and six TDs.
However, Chad Rex (28 receptions, 238 yards, 3 TDs) and Malachi Nolletti (23 receptions, 381 yards, 1 TD) are both back.
So is Brenden Hadley (18 receptions, 211 yards, 2 TDs).
Three starters are back on defense including two-time, first team all-OAC middle linebacker Schmerge. He led the OAC in tackles last year with 103. Schmerge also had 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and one interception.
“I love the other 10 guys I play with on the defensive side of the ball, but when it comes to whoever has the ball, I want to be the guy to tackle him,” Schmerge said. “I’m not saying that to try to pad my stats or anything like that. I just have that urge. I want to get to the ball. I want to beat everybody else there. It’s something I’ve grown up with, probably from growing up with three brothers and the way I played in high school.’’
Added Paul, “He’s (Schmerge) a very good player and a very good leader. He’s experienced and he’s productive and he commands respect from his teammates.’’
The other returnees on defense include second team all-OAC lineman Jason Hundley (32 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks).
For the defensive line, Junior A.J. Simpson and sophomore Dalton Brown are back after missing last year because of injury.
Also back is cornerback Christian Randolph, who had 43 tackles and two interceptions.
Cyler Caldwell rotated in at cornerback last year.
Kyle Rowe saw plenty of time on the line and at linebacker. Landry Hostetler saw action at linebacker and Zach Meronoff started five games at linebacker.
All three will play on the outside.
“We need to get on that straight line, ride it out and be a solid defense and prove in the OAC that we’re one of the top defenses out there,” Schmerge said.
ONU opens at 6 p.m. Saturday at Adrian (Michigan).