Due to many losses to graduation and its smallest freshmen class of the century, Lehman Catholic entered the 2018 football season with an unusually small roster of 25 players — nine less than the previous smallest roster coach Dick Roll had in his previous 12 years as the program’s coach.
Numbers continued to be a problem throughout the season, as the squad rarely (if ever) had all 25 healthy and ready to play at the same time.
But after early struggles, Lehman rebounded and found itself right where it’s used to being: atop the Northwest Central Conference standings and in the playoffs.
After losing its first two games by large margins, the Cavaliers rebounded and finished regular season 7-3. They went on to finish 8-4 overall after beating Ansonia in an opening-round playoff game and losing to Fort Loramie in a second-round game.
That finish is what Roll was trying to convince the squad it could have heading into the year.
“We can have an outstanding season,” Roll said. “I compare us to (NWCC member) Lima Perry last year. They had low numbers and still had an outstanding season and made the playoffs.
“… Our guys know we’ve had success, and some of them have been a part of that success. They’ve got to learn and work to have that success. It’s going to be a little tougher. I don’t have anyone to give guys rest — you’ve got to stay in. That’s going to be the difference.”
The Cavaliers were aided by having several skill players back from their 10-2 2017 campaign, with the biggest piece being senior quarterback Elliott Gilardi.
It took a while for the squad to get going, though. Despite outgaining Fort Recovery 210 yards to 147, Lehman lost 23-6 to the Indians in Week 1 at Sidney Memorial Stadium — in part thanks to four turnovers.
The squad had more struggles on the road in Week 2 in a 52-21 loss at Miami East. The Vikings built a 24-0 lead by halftime and outgained the Cavs 506-362.
Lehman found its defense in Week 3 at Graham, though — and jumpstarted the season with a big rally.
After Graham took an early 6-0 lead, the teams battled to a 14-14 tie heading into the fourth quarter. Michael Denning hit a 31-yard field goal to give Lehman a 17-14 lead, then Gilardi intercepted a pass on defense and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown to clinch the 24-14 victory.
If there was any question about potential struggles through NWCC play, it was answered in Week 4.
Lehman started conference play with a 63-0 win over Ridgemont at Alexander Stadium in Piqua. It was as easy as the score made it seem, as the Cavaliers led 35-0 before the end of the first quarter. Gilardi threw for 69 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 69 yards and 2 TDs in the win during which five other players scored.
Lehman kept the winning streak going with a 63-44 win at Marion Elgin in Week 5. The game was tied 36-36 at halftime, but the Cavaliers took control by scoring three unanswered touchdowns in the third quarter. Gilardi threw for 126 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 143 yards and two TDs.
Lehman then rolled over Hardin Northern 41-7 in Week 6 at Alexander Stadium. The Cavs built a 31-0 lead by halftime and cruised under a running clock in the second quarter. They had 495 yards of offense while Hardin Northern managed 97.
Their quest for an NWCC title was dealt a blow in Week 7, though. The squad lost 22-3 at Waynesfield-Goshen in what was its first league defeat since 2016.
Gilardi was sidelined for most of the Waynesfield-Goshen loss but helped the squad get back on track in Week 8 with a 52-6 win over Upper Scioto Valley at Sidney Memorial Stadium. He completed 9-of-10 passes for 121 yards and three touchdowns in the win.
Lehman then traveled to Perry in Week 9 and gave its conference title hopes a jolt with a 21-14 win. The two squads entered the game tied for first place with 4-1 league records.
The Commodores led 14-7 at halftime but Lehman scored on a short run after a turnover in the third quarter to tie it up, then Gilardi scored on a 60-yard run with 5:14 left to put Lehman ahead. Gilardi threw for 128 yards and ran for 77 yards in the win, which set up a Week 10 showdown on a Thursday night at Sidney Memorial Stadium against Riverside.
The Cavaliers and Pirates entered the game tied for first in the NWCC with 5-1 records. After the squads traded scores to a 7-7 tie with 5:07 left in the second quarter, Logan Bunker scored on a short touchdown run before halftime and Gilardi scored on a 51-yard run in the fourth quarter to lift the squad to a 21-7 win.
The victory clinched Lehman its third consecutive conference title and the No. 5 seed in Division VII, Region 28. The squad traveled to No. 4 Ansonia for an opening-round playoff game.
After a back-and-forth game, Denning kicked a 24-yard field goal with 27.6 seconds left to lift the Cavaliers to a 29-28 victory in Ansonia. The Cavaliers were down 21-12 in the third quarter before rallying for the win.
The win advanced the squad to a second-round game against Fort Loramie, which was played at Alexander Stadium. The Cavs couldn’t keep up with the Redskins and lost 35-0.
Despite the loss, Roll was happy with the season.
“It was a good year,” Roll said. “Nobody expected that. We’re just tickled to death. I said at our meet the team night that we could have a winning record if the kids worked at it, and they did. We had three games in a row with quality opponents, with (Lima) Perry, Riverside, and Ansonia. We beat some quality teams. …Our kids were resilient, they kept plugging away.”
Gilardi was named the NWCC player of the year. He finished the season with 1,709 passing yards and 14 touchdowns and 831 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns.
Denning and fellow senior Bradly Haynes were also named first team all-NWCC, along with Bunker, Ethan Knapke, Drew Barhorst and Brendan O’Leary.
Lehman will open the 2019 season on Aug. 30 at Fort Recovery.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.