CASSTOWN — Miami East entered the 2019 season having reached the playoffs for the past seven seasons in a row — the longest current such streak of any of Miami County’s football teams at that point.
And though the young Vikings, who had 18 of 40 players on their roster playing varsity football for the first time, saw that postseason run come to an end, they made plenty of strides throughout the season, peaking down the stretch to finish with a winning record at 6-4 and build some momentum for the 2020 season — the team’s final one as a member of the Cross County Conference.
Miami East had graduated 16 players in the offseason, 10 of them being All-CCC, six being all-district and even four being All-Ohio players. And knowing that he had a lot of youth and inexperience to build up, coach Max Current knew what the team would face going into the season.
“We have some kids who played, but were not starters. But some of those guys who graduated were three- or four-year lettermen,” Current said. “But these kids were practicing against players that were really good. You have to hope that is going to help them.
“I am more focused on our team and us getting better every day. I know nobody wants to be on the team that ends the (playoff) streak, but we can’t worry about that. We have to worry about what we are doing every day to get better.”
In Week 1, the Vikings found plenty of areas to work on after a matchup against non-league rival Milton-Union. The Bulldogs — who were on their way to a 5-0 start and eventually a playoff berth — scored the game’s first 24 points and led 32-7 at halftime en route to a 46-15 victory.
“We got a little shell-shocked early,” Miami East coach Max Current said. “And our inexperience showed there early in the game. We didn’t handle adversity very well at the start, especially on defense. We’d have a couple of plays where we looked good and boom, they’d hit us with a nice gain. We’re not consistent at all yet on defense.”
Miami East bounced back in Week 2 against Lehman, though, as Austin Francis had a pair of touchdown runs and quarterback Tyler Kirby hit Nick LeValley with a touchdown pass to give the Vikings a two-touchdown lead after three. The Cavaliers got to within four at 21-17 in the fourth, but Kaleb Nickels punched in a short touchdown run and Garrett Kowalak booted a 37-yard field goal to wrap up a 31-17 victory.
The Vikings then struggled in Week 3 against eventual CCC champion Fort Loramie, another playoff team, in a 34-0 loss, but they scored the first 27 points as Kirby threw a pair of touchdown passes and LeValley scored two rushing touchdowns in a 41-12 victory over Tri-County North on the road to even their record at 2-2 after four weeks. East then dropped two straight, falling to Arcanum — the only non-playoff team that the Vikings lost to — in a hard-fought 17-14 battle and then falling to eventual regional finalist Covington 35-13 to drop to 2-4 on the season.
With the season more than halfway over, though, the young Miami East players were able to put the experience from the first half of the season to good use.
The Vikings kicked off a four-game winning streak to close out the season with a 35-13 homecoming victory over Ansonia — the team’s first win at home of the season.
“We hadn’t won a home game all year. We were 0-for-home on the season before Friday,” Miami East coach Max Current said. “We just had a lot better emotion for this game, our spirits were a bit better than the past couple weeks. Hopefully we can continue that in these last three weeks.”
Miami East cashed in Ansonia’s mistakes, turning two turnovers into a 21-8 halftime lead, and then Francis returned the opening kickoff of the second half 74 yards for a touchdown to put the game away as the Viking defense recorded seven takeaways on the night. And the following week, the Vikings evened up their record at 4-4 with a solid 28-13 victory at National Trail. And after Week 9, though Miami East was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, it kept rolling with a 55-14 victory over Bethel.
“We were kind of reeling at 2-4,” Miami East coach Max Current said. “So we tried to focus on winning those last four games. Finishing 6-4 is still a good year, and now we’ve taken the first three steps toward that. Now we’ve just got to finish it off next week.”
The Vikings took care of that in Week 10, too, routing Twin Valley South 50-6 on the road to finish the year at 6-4. LeValley had three rushing touchdowns, Francis had two more and Kirby tossed two touchdown passes to Nickels.
This year, Miami East looks to bring back many of those young players from last year’s team, now with a full year of experience under their belts, as they look to contend in the CCC’s final year of existence. In 2021, the Vikings will join fellow CCC teams Bethel and Covington, as well as Milton-Union, Troy Christian, Lehman, Northridge and Riverside in the newly-formed Three Rivers Conference.