The past two seasons, the Pickerington High School North girls volleyball team had an experienced lineup, which helped it compile a 49-3 record and win two district and two OCC-Ohio Division championships.

The past two seasons, the Pickerington High School North girls volleyball team had an experienced lineup, which helped it compile a 49-3 record and win two district and two OCC-Ohio Division championships.

However, after losing eight players from last year to graduation, the Panthers enter the season with many questions.

"I have to be patient this year," said coach Kris Kern, whose team opened with a 25-21, 25-19, 25-23 loss to Rocky River Magnificat on Aug. 27 and began league play Aug. 30 against Groveport. "We lost eight seniors who logged a lot of varsity playing time.

"You hear people say, 'You don't rebuild, you reload.' We're very inexperienced, but at the same time, we've trained a lot in the offseason and we're talented."

North, which has a league match Thursday, Sept. 1, at Pickerington Central, opened last season with a 15-25, 25-21, 25-22, 25-14 loss to Magnificat before winning its next 25 matches.

The winning streak ended with a 25-16, 25-14, 25-18 loss to Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame in a Division I regional semifinal, as the Panthers finished 25-2 overall.

North returns only three players - seniors Katie Barger (5-foot-8, outside hitter) and Meredith Bush (6-1, middle hitter) and junior Katie Hunt (5-9, middle hitter) - who saw significant playing time last year. Bush was special mention all-league and second-team all-district.

Also expected to be key contributors are senior Casey Hess (5-10, right-side hitter) and juniors Marissa Divine (libero), Marissa Fracassa (5-10, outside hitter), Megan Giardina (6-1, setter), Alexa Goldsberry (outside hitter) and Val Jeffery (5-10, setter).

Jeffery, an AAU All-American who has verbally committed to High Point University in North Carolina, sat out last season after transferring from Pickerington Central.

Rounding out the team are juniors Marina Divine (setter/defensive specialist), Tianna Diyanni (defensive specialist), Sarah Kolibash (5-8, right-side hitter) and Rachel Mick (5-10, outside hitter) and sophomore Jessie Watchman (6-0, outside hitter).

Among the players North lost to graduation were outside hitters Jordan Householder and Kendall Kellogg, libero Carissa Mee and setter Madison Spence.

Last season, Spence was first-team all-league and first-team all-district. Mee was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district, Householder was second-team all-league and first-team all-district and Kellogg was honorable mention all-league.

Kern is aiming for his 18th league title between his stints at North and Lancaster. Last season, the Panthers went 14-0 in the OCC-Ohio, losing only three games, and finished ahead of Grove City (11-3), Newark (10-4), Gahanna (8-6), Lancaster (7-7), Central (4-10) and Groveport (0-14).

"Just because you have the words 'Pickerington North' across the front of your jersey, people think you're going to be top ranked," Kern said. "Who knows? Maybe we will be by the end of the season. If we play hard and be productive, we'll be successful."

•Early into the preseason, first-year Central coach Aubrie Perry heard players muttering about how practice was different from last year.

Perry, the Tigers' fourth coach in seven years, is out to prove that is a good thing.

"Walking in there, it was hard to gain their trust," said Perry, whose team opened Aug. 30 at Lancaster and plays host to North on Thursday, Sept. 1. "Every once in a while, I'd hear, 'We didn't do it this way last year' or 'Coach didn't do that way.' At the beginning, it'd be discouraging. Now I take it as a compliment that I didn't do it the same way as the other coaches.

"They know I am here for them. I am in it for the long haul. I am here until they kick me out."

Central finished 6-17 last season, losing 25-20, 25-15, 23-25, 20-25, 15-6 to Lancaster in the first round of the Division I district tournament.

The Tigers haven't had a winning season since North opened in 2003. Their record last year was their best since going 9-11 in 2004.

Central returns seniors Kasi Payne (setter/outside hitter) and Erika Ross (5-7, middle hitter) and junior Alexis Newsome (6-3, outside hitter). Newsome was second-team all-league last year.

Payne played outside hitter last season but will see time at setter this season after the graduation of setter Morgan Thompson.

"Our hitting can only be a strength if there is good passing and good sets," Perry said. "I have drilled that into my girls' minds that without a pass, nothing can happen."

Also on the team are seniors Maggie Bell (5-8, right-side hitter), Jaida Dickerson (setter) and Heidi Frobel (defensive specialist) and juniors Shalon Conley (5-10, right-side hitter), Baile Simon (libero) and Megan Ward (outside hitter).

"We have a lot of heart," Perry said. "Their program hasn't been the strongest in the past, but these girls are willing to make it strong like it needs to be."