What the Covington Buccaneers accomplished throughout the 2016 football season was anything short of amazing considering all of the obstacles they had to overcome from day one.
First, longtime coach Dave Miller, who led the Buccaneers to state playoff births in each of his nine seasons and accumulated an 86-20 record, moved on to coach at Kettering Fairmont - resulting in a compete change of an offensive and defensive system under new coach Tyler Cates.
Then, Covington had so many unfortunate injuries throughout the season that forced the Buccs to adjust on the fly.
Still, the Buccaneers were able to finish unbeaten at 10-0 on the regular season to earn the program's 30th league championship, 21st state playoff birth (12th straight) and fourth state poll championship (1960, 1973, 2006 and 2016).
"This season was a great success," said Covington coach Tyler Cates. "With a whole new coaching staff, a whole new system, all of the injuries - to be able to overcome all of those obstacles - beat St. Henry - win that close game to a good Troy Christian team - beat Miami East - win the outright CCC (Cross County Conference) title - go undefeated - host a playoff game and have a shutout in a playoff game with a brand new defense - you can't ask for better success than we had."
Still, there are high expectations at Covington and a state championship was high on the aspiration list for a senior class consisting of Nathan Blei, Deron White, Branden Robinson, Seth Thomas, Zane Barnes, Adam Lefeld, Carl Lankford, Lance Miller, Tristin Sowers, Kenny Atkinson, Christian Nelson, Kodie Taylor and Mark Barga.
"I couldn't have asked for a better senior class to come into my first year at Covington," Cates said. "The work ethic from day one since I came here, the seniors told me they wanted to win a state championship. I believe - and still believe - we had the talent to do it."
Unfortunately the Buccaneers had some bad breaks from the outset as standout senior lineman Seth Thomas tore his ACL in June during a conditioning drill. Thomas would ultimately gut it out by playing his senior year, but was relegated to only playing on the offensive side of the ball.
"I watched a bunch of film on him before I got here and I was so excited thinking we would have him on both sides of the football," said Cates of Thomas, who was named Lineman of the Year in the CCC. "He just got done squatting like 500 pounds, 525 pounds parallel - something like that - and he tears his ACL in a conditioning drill. We were all distraught because we didn't think he was going to be able to play, but the kid said 'Nope, I want to play my senior year' and he toughs through it and gets through the entire season. If that's not toughness, I don't know what is."
Which led to the coaches hoping they could use Thomas on the defensive side of the ball in the state playoffs if it came down to it.
But Thomas re-injured the knee early in the playoff game against Fort Recovery.
"He could have really helped us on the defensive side of the ball and that's what's so unfortunate," Cates said.
During the season Covington had to overcome injuries to junior running back and safety Ethan Herron and senior lineman Christian Nelson. Plus, Teague Deaton, an extremely talented freshman lineman, was lost for the year in week four.
"Losing Ethan after I think the Bethel game hurt," said Cates. "Then we lost Nelson after the Miami East game where he played the entire game with a broken wrist. Seth (Thomas) and those two guys, plus Joe Schmelzer, who was sick, would have helped us tremendously in the playoff game against Fort Recovery."
Every team suffers through adversity, yet Covington was able to overcome every adverse situation thrown its way to put together a 10-0 regular season record and beat Cincinnati Hillcrest Academy in the opening round of the state playoffs.
And along the way there were some memorable moments for the black and white - beginning with a huge 27-13 win over a St. Henry team that ultimately reached the state playoffs itself with an 8-3 record.
"It's so hard to describe how I feel right now," sighed Cates about an hour after the St. Henry game. "I'm drained. You know, these kids overcame so much to get this win and it's one of the biggest wins of my coaching career because of all of the circumstances and adversity we had to overcome."
The adversity Covington faced was having the game called at halftime on Friday and being resumed on Saturday due to adverse weather.
But the Buccaneers were able to overcome the distractions and the intense heat on Saturday to pull away with a season-opening win.
"It's a new staff, a new system against a team like that (St. Henry), that's our kids getting thrown into the fire right away," Cates said. "I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't nervous going in, but our kids are so darn mentally tough. Mental toughness won us this game."
Covington followed with a 49-21 win over Arcanum and then a 62-20 shellacking of Mississinawa Valley to set up a huge showdown with unbeaten Bethel in week four.
Behind 561 total yards of offense and 206 rushing yards by senior running back Lance Miller, Covington rolled over the Bees with a convincing 48-7 win.
"I thought we came out ready to go right away and that was my challenge to the boys," said Covington coach Ty Cates. "Our defense just played lights out."
Another unbeaten team awaited the following week as Covington traveled to Troy Christian with huge playoff implications in Division VII, Region 28.
Covington jumped out to a 21-7 lead at the break and pushed the advantage to 27-7 early in the third quarter, but once again injuries forced the Buccaneers into facing more adversity against arguably the best team it faced all season.
Senior slot back, corner back and return specialist Branden Robinson severely twisted his ankle on the sandy surface during warmups and could only manage to play through three quarters.
Then, lineman Carl Lankford suffered yet another stinger and was relegated to playing only on the offensive side of the ball in the second half.
Troy Christian battled back with three straight touchdowns to cut the deficit to 27-26 with a two-point conversion attempt slated to decide the game.
With their backs against the wall, the Buccaneer defense made the play it needed as senior linebackers Deron White and Lance Miller stuffed an Eagle runner two yards short of the goal line to preserve the win.
"Our kids, I'm so proud of them," beamed Cates afterward. "Our backs were against the wall and the momentum was in their (Troy Christian's) favor. They decided to go for two out of the timeout and our kids - we didn't play great defense tonight - but we made the play when it counted."
Covington then traveled to Tri-County North in week six and overcame an early Panther touchdown to pull away with a convincing 41-13 win as quarterback Nathan Blei set a new school passing record for most passing yards in a game with 293.
With a short week ahead for a Thursday night televised game against Miami East, Covington had little time to prepare for a Viking team that was on a six-game winning streak and who would eventually qualify for the state playoffs.
But the Buccaneers were able to respond once again as they built a 21-0 lead and cruised to the 28-17 win to take a strong hold over the Cross County Conference.
"We have to keep getting better," said Covington coach Tyler Cates after his team improved to 7-0 overall and 5-0 in the CCC. "We definitely made mistakes out there, but this is a big win."
The win came at a cost as senior lineman Christian Nelson suffered a season-ending injury to his wrist.
"Christian started out the season kind of slow, wasn't too sure of himself," Cates said. "But as the year progressed, he was really turning into a force in the middle of our defensive line. Just when he was starting to get it, he breaks his wrist. That was unfortunate because I think he was just starting to play his best football."
Covington's final three opponents of the season finished the season with a combined 7-23 record, which gave the Buccaneers a golden opportunity to allow some players to heal as long as they took care of business early in each game.
And Covington did just that by jumping on each one of their opponents early and cruising to lopsided wins - 38-16 over Twin Valley South, 41-7 over National Trail and 63-16 over Ansonia.
This capped the 10-0 regular season and the top seed in the Division VII, Region 28 playoff bracket where Covington would host an 8-2 Cincinnati Hillcrest Academy team at Smith Field in the opening round of the state playoffs.
"It's just a great feeling being 10-0," said Cates. "That's something you always work for, to be 10-0. But, we have a lot more to do."
Led by a senior class who was playing their final game on Smith Field, Covington thoroughly dominated an outmanned Hillcrest team for its first shutout of the season, 49-0.
"I know it was probably bittersweet for the kids with this being their final home game," Cates said. "But, I think they are proud of the way they played and I know I am proud of the way they played."
Next up was a matchup with Fort Recovery, the defending state champions, and an opportunity the coaches and kids were amped up for considering it appeared as though the team was as healthy as is possible could be throughout the week of preparation.
And Covington knew going in that it would have to find a way to control the game between the tackles - which meant inserting Seth Thomas and Carl Lankford - who suffered from stingers all season - in on the defensive line if need be. Plus, the addition of Ethan Herron back at safety after returning from a torn meniscus was an added bonus.
Unfortunately the Buccaneers never had the opportunity to see its team at nearly full strength as Thomas re-injured his knee on the second offensive possession of the game and Herron was re-injured shortly thereafter. Plus, Christian Nelson was still out with a broken wrist, Lankford was limited because of his stingers and starting outside linebacker Joe Schmelzer had a sever case of bronchitis and two ear infections that materialized the morning of the game.
The result, Fort Recovery shredded the interior of Covington's defense with its power running game and the Buccaneer offense couldn't keep pace in a 42-14 defeat that ended any hope of the ultimate goal - a state championship.
"I truly believe we had the talent to do it (win state), if we were completely healthy," Cates said. "I know people will look at that score and say what they want, but I believe we were that good. But it's football. You play with what you have and do the best you can. Our kids played their tails off that night, but it wasn't enough."
The morning after the game certain headlines from area media outlets didn't do justice to the type of season Covington had.
For example, one read "Fort Recovery 'Ruins' Covington's Season".
That was the furthest from the actual reality of what this Buccaneer team accomplished in 2016. One game didn't take away from the 11 previous games where the 50 Covington kids in uniform overcame more adversity than any one team deserves to be thrown at them in one season.
This team was special - regardless of what anyone outside of the locker room and the halls of Covington High School says.