With off-the-court issues marring the first half of its season, the Gahanna Lincoln High School boys basketball team likely has seen its league title hopes disintegrate.
The worst, however, finally might be over if everything goes according to the Lions' plan moving forward.
Senior guard Aaron Jackson and junior guard Manny Powell are expected to be back Friday, Jan. 18, for an OCC-Ohio Division game at Groveport after each served four-game suspensions.
In their absence, the Lions lost league games to Grove City (63-60 on Jan. 4), Pickerington North (46-44 on Jan. 8) and Pickerington Central (59-46 on Jan. 11) before defeating Chillicothe 69-52 on Jan. 12. Senior guard Troy Mundy also missed the first three of those games.
Gahanna also lost to Reynoldsburg 40-38 on Dec. 18 when junior forward Javon Bess and Powell did not play because of a disciplinary issue.
Junior guards Corey Howard and Jimmer Ward and freshman forward Nick Ward all were thrust into key roles for the first time during the recent stretch.
"This team has been through a lot," coach Tony Staib said. "We're halfway through the season and the team has taken a lot of hits. There are some positives down the road; we've just got to hang in there.
"The OCC is out of reach, but we dug that hole ourselves. We've got to take ownership of that."
Although the Lions had just eight players in uniform during the last four games, they led Pickerington North heading into the fourth quarter.
Then against Pickerington Central, Gahanna fell behind 33-14 with 3 minutes, 7 seconds to go in the first half before rallying to within seven.
A basket by senior guard Ronnie Stokes Jr. with 7:36 remaining cut it to 46-39, but Stokes and Bess each missed two free throws on the Lions' next two possessions.
The Lions finally scored again with 1:35 remaining, but Central led 51-41 by that point.
"Every game in this stretch with a shortened roster we have been very proud of our eight guys," Staib said. "They have fought and battled for every rebound. We've got guys playing other positions. Our entire coaching staff is proud of their efforts. We had several chances (against Central) but had a scoring drought."
"We were stuck on 39," Bess said. "I definitely think we're going to grow through this."
Bess, who attended Pickerington Central the last two years after attending Gahanna in both sixth and eighth grade, scored 17 points in his first meeting against his former team.
Bess said he remains close friends with Central's Jae'Sean Tate, who scored a game-high 24 points and added 10 rebounds, and works out with the Tigers' D.J. Tyree.
"It was fun. We tried to get the win," said Bess, whose team plays Central on Feb. 15 on the road. "We played hard out there."
Kasee McDougle leading wrestlers
The wrestling team won a pair of league duals last week despite being without two-time state qualifier and senior 138-pounder Drew McDougle.
McDougle suffered a concussion during the Brecksville-Broadview Heights Holiday Tournament on Dec. 28.
"He hit heads with a kid in his second match and the referee stopped the match," coach Kyle Bentley said. "(He was) still having issues with headaches (during the second week of January)."
Gahanna, which lost to Pickerington Central 43-30 on Dec. 20 in its OCC-Ohio opener, beat Groveport 53-21 and Reynoldsburg 42-36 on Jan. 10. Seniors Zach Holloway (160) and Kasee McDougle (138), juniors David Dembroski (170) and Nick Nader (heavyweight) and sophomore Joe Looker (113) all won both their matches.
Entering the Marion County Invitational on Jan. 11 and 12, Kasee McDougle was 23-1 and Drew McDougle was 17-3. Also with double-digit victories were Holloway (15-8), Nader (15-7) and Granyl Smith (10-8 at 220).
According to Bentley, Zach McDougle (120), Carl Turner (126), Tanner Harding (132) and Dolan Martin (182/195) are freshmen who have shown promise.
"We've been getting our younger guys a lot of matches," Bentley said. "We're trying to get them in there and get their noses dirty but not get them totally kicked. It's a learning curve, but we're getting there."
Gahanna is competing in Division I, Region 6-B of the inaugural state team tournament. The other teams in the region are Lancaster, Mount Vernon, Pickerington Central, Pickerington North, Reynoldsburg, Teays Valley and Watkins Memorial.
The Lions, seeded sixth, open against third-seeded Teays Valley on Wednesday, Jan. 23, at a site that was to be announced Jan. 15.
The winner faces Pickerington Central or Watkins Memorial on Jan. 30. The regional semifinals also are scheduled for Jan. 30. Regional finals will be held Feb. 6, followed by the state tournament Feb. 9.
Girls basketball team rolling
The girls basketball team has won seven in a row since losing back-to-back games in late December.
The Lions beat Pickerington North 50-42 on Jan. 8 for their second consecutive win over the Panthers and then edged Pickerington Central 49-44 on Jan. 11.
Gahanna had lost to Pickerington North nine consecutive times before beating the Panthers 63-46 in a Division I district final last season.
Senior guard Quiera Lampkins had 17 points and senior guard Chrishna Butler scored 14 against Pickerington North. Lampkins (14 points), Butler (13) and senior forward Maddison Blackwell (11) led the way against Pickerington Central.
Gahanna also is hoping to add to its depth at some point this month when senior guard Reyna Montgomery returns from an injury. She has been out the entire season.
Gahanna's only losses have come to Solon (65-56 on Dec. 15) and Reynoldsburg (54-44 on Dec. 18).
"Since that Reynoldsburg loss, we've been on them about playing hard all the time," coach Rick Hauser said. "That was the book on us last year: Were we the one that lost to Reynoldsburg by four or the one that lost to Lancaster?
"We've got enough offensive weapons. It would be nice to rotate (Montgomery) in for a couple minutes and put her in for (Lampkins)."