The season started with a pair of forgettable games.

By the time the year reached its conclusion, the Nelsonville-York Buckeyes were posing with the Doc Kroner Trophy, champions of the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division.

The Buckeyes finished strong in 2019, winning seven of their final eight games. They won a thriller at Athens, 35-28, in the season finale to share the league championship with the Bulldogs.

It is the 23rd TVC championship in football for the Buckeyes, the most in league history. The current group of N-Y players were able to add to the program’s storied history.

“I’m about at a loss for words and I like to talk,” Nelsonville-York coach Rusty Richards said after the win over Athens.

The Buckeyes (7-3, 5-1 TVC-Ohio) were able to win that 23rd championship thanks to a season-closing three-game winning streak, after a home loss to Wellston. It started when they survived a 13-10 win at Alexander — a game N-Y trailed 3-0 at halftime.

Nelsonville-York then held off Vinton County, 34-20, on Senior Night in Boston Field. It was an impressive win, as the Vikings would go to finish 5-5 overall, and right behind Nelsonville-York and Athens at 4-2 in the TVC-Ohio.

Then came the win at Athens. The Bulldogs had won 11 TVC-Ohio games in a row, and were the presumed favorites to win a second outright championship.

Nelsonville-York surged ahead 28-7, then held on for the late win thanks to a Brandon Phillips interception in the game’s final minute.

The only downside for the Buckeyes is the fact that there will be no week 11. Nelsonville-York finished ninth in the final computer ratings for the Division VI, Regoin 21. Only the top eight would qualify.

The Buckeyes came as close to making the playoffs as a team could. Their final average was 15.15, while Western Reserve’s final average was 15.2.

Had any of the seven teams the Buckeyes defeated pulled out one more victory at any point in the season, then Nelsonville-York would have been preparing for a postseason game.

As it stands, the Buckeyes still have plenty to look forward to. They say goodbye to seniors Keegan Wilburn, Mikey Seel, Austin Thrapp, Mitchell Keplar, Evan Hamilton and Drake McClain — all of whom were starters and key contributors in 2019.

The core of the unit returns though. Due to injuries, Nelsonville-York would sometimes have as many as nine non-seniors on the defense at once.

The defense was led by linebacker Colton Snyder (152 total tackles, 23 tackles for loss) and defensive tackle Christian Wiseman (114 total tackles, 27 tackles for loss). Both are juniors, and can return to anchor the middle of Nelsonville-York’s defense in 2020.

In fact, the Buckeyes eight leading tacklers can all return. Sophomore Tucker Levering (79 tackles), sophomore Nathan Martin (73 tackles), junior Brandon Phillips (65 tackles) and junior Ethan Douglas (62 tackles) all turned in solid seasons.

On the offensive side of the football, Wiseman can return at guard, while junior center Matthew Odenthall and sophomore tackle Domnik Robson can give the Buckeyes a trio of experienced players up front.

Phillips will also return as a play-making receiver. He caught 29 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. Junior tight end Ethan Gail caught 23 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore Drew Carter (9 catches, 218 yards, 3 touchdowns) and junior Christopher McDonald (10 catches, 138 yards, 1 touchdown) will also return.

Junior cornerback/receiver Zach Taylor can also return after suffering a season ending injury in the season opener. His brother, Alec Taylor, will return for his third season as a place kicker.

The Buckeyes will need to find a new quarterback, however, after Seel started the last 20 games under center.

Seel was able to improve on his junior season numbers, completing 109 of 213 passes for 1,669 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also rushed for 211 yards and four more touchdowns.

While the Buckeyes have plenty of talent returning, it will be difficult to replace the overall production of Wilburn, a do-everything talent who excelled for the last four seasons.

Wilburn finished his senior season with 740 yards rushing on 75 carries (9.9 yard per carry average) and 11 touchdowns. He caught 26 passes for 451 yards and six more touchdowns. He also threw a 53-yard touchdown pass in the win over Athens.

Wilburn was a big-play machine, scoring eight touchdowns that covered more than 56 yards.

If you include his 53-yard touchdown pass, Wilburn’s 18 touchdowns accounted for covered an average of 48.8 yards.

Wilburn will go down as one of the most successful Buckeye football players in program history. He had 100 career receptions for 1,830 yards and 24 touchdowns — all school records.

He also rushed for 3,414 yards on 434 carries, scoring 44 touchdowns on the ground. He will graduate as the program’s fifth all-time leading rusher, behind Justin Gail (5,210 yards), Derek Arnold (4,830), Alex Mount (4,420) and Dave Boston Jr. (4,017).

Wilburn scored 72 touchdowns in his career — when defense and special teams are added in. He scored 434 points, accounting for 5,410 total yards when passing is factored in.

Wilburn also had team success, as he was a member of three TVC-Ohio championship teams, and the 2017 team that went 10-0 and won a regional championship.

Wilburn is expected to graduate early from Nelsonville-York, and enroll at Ohio University in January, where he has committed to playing football.

The Buckeyes will have to fill the void left by Wilburn, and will also need to break in a new quarterback.

But the late-season flourish that led to a league title, combined with the amount of varsity players who are returning should make Nelsonville-York a strong contender for a playoff spot in 2020.

Email at kwiseman@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @KevinWmessenger

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