CINCINNATI — Withrow's football program is a family to senior defensive back/running back Zion Shaw.
"I feel like we have a bond on and off the field," Shaw said during practice this week. "We do activities off the field, out of school. In school, we stick together. At lunch, we all sit together. If you see one of us you see all of us."
The talented Tigers have special chemistry as the season opener draws near against visiting Walnut Hills Aug. 18. It's evident throughout the calendar year, not just this preseason.
"What I like about the team this summer is that we all are here to compete to complete," senior wide receiver Gideon Tafari-Thompson said. "We're working together as a brotherhood and as a family. And we're making sure everybody stays together and hold each other accountable."
The focus is clear. Last season's success was a foundation for this new journey.
"Sixteen weeks," Shaw said. "That's what Coach (Kali) Jones preaches every day. We're working for 16 weeks."
Withrow (9-2) was a Division II regional quarterfinalist in 2021 after a narrow loss to state-ranked No. 1 Piqua in early November. That experience taught the Tigers a lot throughout the winter and spring.
"It really showed our kids that we can compete with anybody," coach Kali Jones said. "We always want to grow but it really showed them that they can compete at a high level, at a championship-contending level. And so we just want to use that as a steppingstone and continue to get better."
Withrow started the 2021 season with a 5-0 record for the first time since the 2004 season. Most importantly, the Tigers earned their first playoff win in program history with a 29-7 victory over Troy in the first round of the Region 8 playoffs.
"It was really an eye opener for the program," Jones said. "I've always preached since I've been here that the talent is here. And being a coach at a program at Wayne High School seeing a championship caliber type of program and athletes and team — I always told these guys that we had the ability to make a run."
The Tigers have embraced a very challenging schedule this year including games with Springboro, Badin(Division III state runner-up), Hoban (Division II state runner-up), Trotwood-Madison and the Cincinnati Metro Athletic Conference.
"I've been here since seventh grade," Shaw said. "I've seen where we came from and where we're headed. And we're headed to big things you know."
The Withrow players and coaches understand the expectation this year.
"This is where Withrow football is going now," Jones said. "And so we want to a championship-contending program. You're not going to make a living being a championship-type of contender and playing Division IV and Division V teams with smaller numbers. You need to schedule up a little bit."
Withrow is led by several talented players including junior cornerback Teryhon Nichols, a four-star player who has more than 20 scholarship offers and is ranked Ohio's No. 7 player in the 2024 class by the 247 Sports Composite.
Senior defensive tackle DeAndre Woolens had 13 sacks last season and wants to earn 20 this year in the hopes of breaking the school record.
Woolens has been in the Withrow program since the seventh grade, and said this year's team is humble yet hungry given the talent on both sides of the football.
Yet, it isn't just football and academic success at Withrow. Woolens, who has multiple scholarship offers, said Jones leads the Tigers in life.
"He treats us like we are one of his own kids," Woolens said. "I appreciate Coach Jones a lot. He gives us meals. He takes us to camps. He does a lot of things for us."
Jones said the coaching staff is committed to helping the program succeed in football and beyond. That's why the team is reminded of the principles of accountability, responsibility and commitment.
"I love this place as if I graduated from here," said Jones. "To provide the resources and give these kids the opportunity to achieve success both on the field, off the field, in the classroom, out of the classroom and in life is what matters."