It would have been easy to write off the Hilliard Darby High School boys basketball team after four games.
The Panthers lost those contests but rebounded from their slow start, winning eight of their next 11 games, starting with a 63-41 victory over Canal Winchester on Dec. 17. They were 8-7 overall before playing Mount Vernon on Jan. 21 and are 5-3 in the OCC-Cardinal Division.
"I think we needed the first four games to find our identities and roles," coach Mark Hess said. "We had to learn what it meant to compete.
"We got that first win and realized that we could play with teams like Westerville South. We started to realize that we could do this."
Darby defeated Westerville South 56-52 on Dec. 20 in the first round of OCC-Cardinal play. The teams meet again Jan. 31 at South, which is 10-3 overall and 6-2 in the league.
"Our team competes and fights together. They are not going to back down," Hess said. "The kids believe in each other, they trust each other.
"Our seniors, Taylor (Van Winkle) and Zach (Cowan), and even Jordan (Clark), who's a junior, really are showing up. They are the ones who guys look to when things get tough and we trust they will make the right decisions."
Van Winkle scored 20 points, including four 3-pointers, in a 54-31 win over Davidson on Jan. 18. Nick Powers had 11 points and Clark scored seven.
Through 12 games, Clark was averaging a team-high 12.8 points, followed by Van Winkle (12.3), Joey Schneider (6.1) and Powers (5.5). Van Winkle also was averaging a team-high 4.6 rebounds, with Clark (4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists), Schneider (2.2 assists) and Lorenzo McLaurin (4.3 points, 3.8 rebounds) also being among the team's key contributors.
Cowan was averaging only 1.9 points and 2.6 rebounds through 12 games, but Hess said the lanky 6-foot-3 senior post player contributes in other ways that have helped the Panthers overcome their slow start to the season.
"Zach is really consistent. You know what you are getting with him every night," Hess said. "His roles are not really the ones that get your name in the paper, but he gives you a strong effort on the glass and plays great post defense.
"He does the kind of things that coaches notice. Against Olentangy (in a 50-48 win Jan. 11), Zach hit a couple of 15-foot jumpers that helped us up the middle. He does things that help you get that extra possession or he'll make a deflection ... the kind of things that you don't see in the stats."
Cowan said the Panthers' confidence has grown as the season has progressed.
"It's great to see how far we have come as a team," he said. "We lost a lot of seniors from last year and a lot of people didn't think we would be very good, but that drove us to get better.
"A week or two before winter break, everything started to fall into place. As a team, we collectively realized that we could do this. The slow start didn't have to mean that our season would be like that."
Van Winkle said the team is being rewarded for its hard work.
"The hardest thing about the start was knowing that we were better than that," he said. "The nice thing about this stretch (winning eight of 11 games) is seeing the hard work paying off.
"The thing about it is that we have five on the court, but we have eight competitors. We have had more talent in the past, but we haven't had a team that works as hard as this one does in four quarters."
Wildcats lose two straight to Coffman
Davidson was 3-10 overall before playing Pickerington North on Jan. 21 and is 2-6 in the OCC-Central.
The Wildcats, who had lost four consecutive games before playing Pickerington North, played back-to-back league games against Dublin Coffman last week, losing 71-44 at home Jan. 14 and 52-39 on the road Jan. 17.
In the first matchup with the Shamrocks, Jimmy Ratliff had seven points and both Matt Kinnaird and Nick Potts scored six. Josh Stimmel led the Wildcats in the second meeting with nine points, with Connor Livingston scoring seven. Michael Simon led Davidson against Darby with nine points.
Jaguars make 13 3-pointers in loss
Bradley was 2-8 overall before playing Fisher Catholic on Jan. 21 and is 3-5 in the OCC-Cardinal.
The Jaguars lost to Dublin Jerome 78-60 on Jan. 17 in league play despite making 13 3-pointers. Brandon Glenn led Bradley with 27 points, including five 3-pointers. Jackson Murphy had 12 points and Derek Dunnagan scored 11. Nick Ingstrum added nine.