Orion started the 2019 season strong at 4-1, but even after hitting some bumps in the road earned its sixth straight Class 2A playoff appearance after ending the regular season 5-4.
The Chargers, who also finished fourth in the very competitive Three Rivers Conference's Rock Division behind champion Morrison, Sterling Newman and Fulton, fell on the road to eventual state champion Newman in the opening round of the postseason.
"In our league, getting in at 5-4, you've definitely earned your way in," said Orion head coach Chip Filler.
Filler, an Orion alum who will begin his 12th year on the sidelines, has posted an 85-44 career record. His teams have missed the postseason only twice in the past 11 years and have reached the Class 2A quarterfinals three times in that span.
"This summer was a challenge for sure, dealing with the changing rules due to COVID-19, not just for our program, but statewide, I'm guessing," said Filler, who will have five offensive players [four on the line] and five on defense returning. "We were doing things somewhat as a team over the summer, and now this fall we're working out with our lifting sessions and running. The quarterbacks have been throwing with receivers.
"We're are doing what we can, following all the protocols."
Filler admits the quarterback spot is the biggest question mark heading into the season after the Chargers lost First Team All-TRAC signal-caller Ryan Jungwirth to graduation.
"Really, there is always a battle for that position, but this year we have sophomore Drake Gunn and a junior, Jared Mohr, vying for the spot," Filler said. "Through the quarterback sessions that we've had so far, it has seemed to go back and forth as far as who has looked a little bit better.
"To me, on-the-field stuff will take care of itself, but it's off-the-field things I'm looking for. I want guys who are going to be leaders, guys who show up for workouts and guys who are good students in the classroom."
Players to watch
Senior running back/wide receiver Coby Schultz was a First Team All-Three Rivers Rock selection and IHSFCA Class 2A All-State Honorable Mention pick after leading the Chargers with 1,153 total yards [522 rushing; 631 on 45 receptions] and 14 total touchdowns. At outside linebacker he had 51 tackles and a pair of interceptions.
"Coby Schultz, he has been a phenomenal player for us," said Filler. "He played a little his freshman year on special teams, but the past two years he has been a big key in the success we have had.
"He will be our cowbell or centerpiece of everything."
Schultz leads a group of eight returning all-conference standouts which also includes fellow First-Teamer Zach Riddell at offensive tackle.
"We should be really solid up the middle, so to speak," Filler said.
Newcomers you need to know
Filler says he is excited to see how junior offensive tackle Seth Gardner [6-3, 280] fits in with an already experienced group and what sophomore wide receiver Blayden Murdoch can do opposite of Schultz.
"Seth Gardner has made extremely great strides. He is a big kid, and his mobility was an issue, but his movement right now is unbelievable. I really feel he is going to step up and be a big piece in our offensive line. Blayden has shown his devotion to becoming a very good player, and his strength level has improved from last year. If he is not a name this season, he will be in two years."
Orion's schedule will feature all six TRAC Rock Division opponents — including home dates with Riverdale, Sterling Newman and Morrison and road trips to Rockridge to open the season on March 5, Fulton and Bureau Valley — as well as a crossover contest against defending TRAC Mississippi Division champion Princeton at Charger Field on March 12.
"We open with Rockridge, and that is our biggest rival. In fact, it's one of the best rivalries I've ever been a part of," Filler said. "We don't like them, and they don't like us, it's just that simple.
"My mom is a Rockridge graduate, and we don't talk that week if that tells you anything about the feelings of the schools towards each other. I think as teams we respect each other, but we also want to beat each other any time we line up.
"I think starting the season with Rockridge is the best-case scenario for both schools. Each of us is going into that game against a very good opponent, so getting up for the start of the season won't be an issue.
"We obviously want to win every game, but Sterling Newman would be another game that maybe gets that extra circle around it. They have had the upper hand pretty much the past five years, so that would be another one we'd like to get."
The opening game of the season on the road against Rockridge will be a quick test for Orion, especially for either Gunn or Mohr. However, whether the Chargers pass their Week 1 test or not, the rest of the schedule with powerhouse TRAC programs won't get any easier week to week.