The largely inexperienced Hilliard Darby High School boys basketball team appears to be coming into its own.
The Panthers lost their first four games but won four of their next five and were 4-5 overall and 3-2 in the OCC-Cardinal Division before playing Westerville Central on Jan. 8.
"We returned just two guys with varsity experience and had three football players who had to adjust to basketball conditioning, get their basketball legs," coach Mark Hess said. "We only go about eight deep and those guys haven't played much together ... (and) our tallest player is only 6-foot-3.
"For all those reasons, we expected a little bit of a slow start. Obviously, we're getting better right now. It was important for them to get their first couple of wins. Then over the (holiday) break, we had unbelievable practices. We had alums in the gym and the energy was awesome. The kids practiced at a higher level and it's starting to pay dividends in games."
The returnees, guards Taylor Van Winkle and Jordan Clark, have led the charge. Clark had 20 points and Van Winkle scored 16 in a 63-41 win over Canal Winchester in a league game Dec. 17 that gave Darby its first victory.
Others who have stepped up their games include forward Braeden Hook and guards Joey Schneider and Nick Powers.
Hook had 11 points against Canal Winchester and in the Panthers' next game, a 56-52 league win over Westerville South on Dec. 20, Schneider made three 3-pointers and scored a team-high 14 points and Powers had 10 points.
Clark added 13 points against South and hit a baseline jump shot for the winning points as Darby beat Cuyahoga Falls 39-37 on Dec. 21 at Walsh University in North Canton for its third consecutive victory. Clark finished with 10 points and Van Winkle scored 11 against Cuyahoga Falls.
"We're rebounding by committee and the kids are understanding their roles," Hess said. "They're doing what they do best. We're being patient and playing good defense, especially on the help side to give our post players a chance. We're not impressive as individual athletes... We've got average athletes who are buying into the team philosophies."
Darby lost to Zanesville 57-47 on Dec. 28 but rebounded to beat Dublin Scioto 53-25 in a league contest Jan. 3.
Clark had 17 points and Van Winkle scored 15 against Scioto after both scored 13 against Zanesville.
"We expected Van Winkle and Clark to be our scoring leaders early because of their experience," Hess said. "Van Winkle was our leading scorer last year and our opponents have been looking to lock him down more this year. Clark, although he was our eighth-leading scorer last year, is picking his spots with Van Winkle getting the tough defenders on him.
"But everyone else is stepping up. (Forward) Zach Cowen is giving up four inches and 40 pounds nightly in the post and he's getting one or two shots a game, but he's doing the dirty work, banging around in the post and screening. That goes unnoticed by everyone outside of this program. Braeden Hook and (forward) Lorenzo McLaurin also do that dirty work. I'm proud of our guys for just playing their roles for the good of the team."
Jaguars surpass last season's win totals
Like Darby, Bradley lost its first four games and beat Canal Winchester for its first win of the season.
The Jaguars, who travel to Darby on Friday, Jan. 10, for an OCC-Cardinal game, appear to be gaining some momentum. After defeating Canal Winchester 44-41 in overtime Dec. 20, they beat Westerville North 62-60 on Jan. 3. Both were league games.
Bradley, which finished 1-22 overall and 0-14 in the OCC-Cardinal last season, was 2-7 overall and 2-3 in the OCC-Cardinal before playing Scioto on Jan. 8.
"Beating a very good Westerville North team at their place is a huge win for our program," coach Michael Limbird said. "But we don't want to be a one-hit wonder. We don't want to get to the end of the season and say, 'Do you remember when we played a great game at Westerville North?'"
"At the end of the season, we want to look back and say, 'That win at Westerville North sure did spark our great season."
Against North, point guard Brandon Glenn scored 12 of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter, going 7-for-8 from the free-throw line in that quarter, and forward Jackson Murphy had 20 points.
"We've led at halftime in six of our nine games, so we've played well at times but just never put together four good quarters," Limbird said. "Against Westerville North, we played smart, we played hard and we played together, and we did it for 32 minutes. We're shooting it better, turning it over less and playing better defense."
Limbird praised the defensive efforts put forth by forward Derek Dunnagan and guard Preston Rapp against the Warriors.
"Dunnagan did a great job defensively in the paint against their bigs and Rapp drew two critical charging calls in the final minute," Limbird said. "The (first) charge gave us possession to take the lead and his second gave us possession to secure the win."
Against Canal Winchester, Glenn had 16 points and Murphy and guard Nick Ingstrum scored 10 and nine points, respectively.
Bradley was competitive in losses to Watkins Memorial (74-66 on Dec. 23) and Davidson (54-52 on Dec. 28).
Against Davidson, Bradley used a 16-2 run in the fourth quarter to erase a 13-point deficit, only to see the Wildcats pull out the win. The Wildcats went 23-for-27 from the free-throw line while the Jaguars went 7-for-16.
Murphy had 19 points and Glenn scored 18.
"We were up one (point) with (1:30) left against Watkins Memorial and we were up 1 with 45 seconds left against Davidson, so we're learning how to handle those situations and we were able to close one out against Westerville North," Limbird said.
"We need to carry this momentum over the rest of the season. I know Darby will be looking to knock us down. They beat us twice last year, so we need to put our best effort out there on Friday."
Stimmel leads 'Cats in win over Jaguars
Guard Josh Stimmel went 12-for-13 from the free-throw line, making six in the final minute, and had a career-high 26 points to lead Davidson past Bradley.
The win snapped a four-game losing streak for the Wildcats, who were 2-5 overall and 1-3 in the OCC-Central before playing Thomas Worthington on Jan. 7.
Davidson's league losses came against Westland (54-52 on Dec. 17), Upper Arlington (59-48 on Dec. 20) and Olentangy Liberty (55-41 on Jan. 3).
Against Liberty, post player Michael Simon had 11 points and guard Max Huber scored 10.
Davidson lost to Stow-Munroe Falls 67-49 on Dec. 21.