Since the 2003-04 season, trouble would rarely find the girls basketball teams at Pickerington High School Central and Pickerington High School North within league play.

Since the 2003-04 season, trouble would rarely find the girls basketball teams at Pickerington High School Central and Pickerington High School North within league play.

Entering this season, Central was 52-2 against league opponents. North, which joined the OCC befoe the 2004-05 season, was 40-0.

This season, league play went from breather games to a 14-game schedule, leaving the Tigers and Panthers searching for air.

"There are not a lot of breathers in this league," North coach Dave Butcher said. "We've always had a tough non-league schedule but before you'd hop out of league play to play another good team. It's a whole different situation now.

"This is the best OCC conference I've ever seen since I've been coaching. This is one of the best in the state."

After years of success against OCC teams, it took a while for the Pickerington teams to adjust. Central senior post player Emilee Harmon admitted the Tigers' conference-opening loss to Reynoldsburg 63-56 on Dec. 5 was difficult to digest. Harmon and her teammates quickly realized what this league would offer.

Seven days later, Central handed North its first OCC loss 59-57. It was less than a month into the season and both Pickerington teams had experienced adversity within the league.

"(The league) has made us battle-ready," Central coach Wade Brockwell said. "Every night we've got to bring it. It's made us mentally tougher and prepared us for a tournament run where you simply have to survive to advance."

Brockwell has seen his team increase its mental toughness.

"Some days in the past they didn't have to mentally prepare as much," he said. "That's the No. 1 thing now is to prepare mentally and not take any days lightly, whether it's practice or a game."

Coaches widely consider a tougher league schedule to be a benefit in the postseason. Central learned an important lesson following its second loss to Reynoldsburg 58-54 on Jan. 15.

"With Reynoldsburg, we didn't play with the same level of intensity as we play in other games and they match up well with us," Brockwell said. "Our league and our tournament are about matchups. Now, our kids understand how we have to handle certain matchups and take advantage of it."

In past seasons, those important lessons were learned against strong non-conference teams. Although four fewer non-league games are being played, the Tigers and Panthers are not suffering from a lack of competition.

"Top to bottom, there's good competition," Butcher said. "Lancaster is much improved in the second of the season, Newark has not won a lot of games, but played strong. Groveport is getting better and Gahanna has a nice record."

Before last Tuesday, four teams in the OCC-Ohio had 11 wins and the eight teams were a combined 66-44 overall, as they were experiencing success outside the league.

Grove City, which was third in the OCC-Ohio before last Tuesday, beat the OCC-Cardinal's third-place team, Dublin Jerome, 76-39 last Saturday.

While the league schedule prepared the players for the postseason, the coaches are sharpening their scouting skills.

"We've actually broken down more film than we have done in the past," Butcher said. "Little things help you win not only these conference games, but tournament games."

•REMATCH COVERAGE -- Coverage of Tuesday's game between Central and North is available on the Hoop It Up link at www.ThisWeekNews.com.

Entering that game, Harmon led Central at 20.3 points per game as the Tigers had won nine of 10.

North's offensive struggles seemed to improved following wins over Grove City 64-37 on Jan. 17 and Groveport 65-26 on Jan. 22. Brittney Callahan led the Panthers at 11.5 points per game.

"The kids are playing a lot better," Butcher said. "Hopefully they continue to grow as the tournament draw is Sunday. Everything is right around the corner."

At a glance

Below are recent results and coming schedules for the Central and North girls basketball teams:

CENTRAL

Jan. 19 -- Defeated Olentangy 91-41 in home Fairfield Federal All Ohio Prep Shoot Out. Jessica Powell scored 20 points and Katie Stevens added 17.

*Last Friday -- Def. Lancaster 60-52. Emilee Harmon scored 30 points.

*Last Tuesday -- Played Pickerington North

*Friday -- Home vs. Gahanna. Central won 46-41 on Dec. 19 behind 21 points from Harmon.

*Tuesday -- Home vs. Groveport. Central won 68-47 on Dec. 15 as Harmon and Samantha Griffith scored 15 points apiece.

Of note: The Tigers were 11-2 overall and 7-2 in the OCC-Ohio before last Tuesday.

NORTH

*Jan. 22 -- Def. Groveport 65-26. Brittney Callahan scored 21 points and Shelby Olszewski added 12.

*Last Tuesday -- Played Pickerington Central

*Saturday -- Home vs. Reynoldsburg. North won 46-44 on Dec. 20 behind 17 points from Callahan.

*Tuesday -- At Gahanna. North won 45-33 on Dec. 23 as Nicole Olszewski scored 13 points.

Of note: The Panthers were 11-3 overall and 8-1 in the OCC-Ohio before last Tuesday.

*OCC-Ohio game