With something of a chuckle, Pickerington High School Central boys basketball coach Jerry Francis acknowledged a district semifinal loss last year still motivates his team.

With something of a chuckle, Pickerington High School Central boys basketball coach Jerry Francis acknowledged a district semifinal loss last year still motivates his team.

The Tigers' second-year coach is careful, however, to keep his team focused after it clinched the OCC-Ohio Division championship with one game to play in the regular season.

"Maybe that's more a hidden agenda among the players and coaches," said Francis, whose 2010-11 team's season ended with a 71-49 loss to Westerville South. "We're taking it one game at a time, going with a humble approach. But I do think that's in the back of the guys' minds, that they know they want to exceed our expectations from last year and do better.

"It can leave a bitter taste in your mouth after having a good regular season and winning your conference title if you fall short in the tournament. We just want to continue our winning ways, take it one game at a time and respect our opponents at all times. Just enjoy that opportunity to compete."

The Tigers, who received the fourth seed for the Division I district tournament, open the postseason against Dublin Jerome at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, at Jonathan Alder. The winner will play Groveport in the second round at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 29, also at Jonathan Alder, with that winner returning to the same site March 7 for a district semifinal against eighth-seeded South, Logan, Teays Valley or Westerville Central.

Pickerington Central, which finished the regular season at 18-2 overall and 13-1 in the OCC-Ohio, defeated Jerome 78-62 on Dec. 13 and swept Groveport in two league games, winning 74-41 on Dec. 20 and 86-29 on Feb. 3.

The Tigers did not play any of their potential district semifinal opponents during the regular season.

Senior guard Caris LeVert scored 13 and 18 points in the two Groveport games, and sophomore guard Connor Kern had a then-career-high 23 points against Jerome. He eclipsed that with 24 points in a 74-42 league title-clinching victory over Lancaster on Feb. 13. Kern had four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of that game.

"It's coach Francis' first (OCC title) and our first (since 2003-04). It feels good being able to achieve something like this," Kern said. "We definitely are looking at districts and maybe past it. We want to go even farther. The regionals are a huge goal for us. Hopefully we can go even farther than that."

Jerome's Nick Neale scored 17 points, Kyle Christman had 16 and Donovan Wilson added 12 in the December game. Central hopes that kind of familiarity will smooth its road toward exceeding last year's finish.

"Now we're starting to get into a tournament mindset. We just have to be focused," senior guard Chad Nelson said. "We can't break down mentally like we did a few times this season. We have to be intensely focused and ready to play every game."

•North finds itself in perhaps the most evenly-matched portion of the district bracket. The Panthers, who were seeded 13th of 42 teams, open against Dresden Tri-Valley at 7:45 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, at Marysville. The winner will play St. Charles or Zanesville in a second-round game at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 29, also at Marysville.

Zanesville has the best record of that group at 15-5, but St. Charles is 13-7, Tri-Valley is 12-8 and North is 11-9.

"We have a good seed considering our record. It's a favorable draw and, we think, an evenly-matched one. We have to win our first game then we'll see what happens," coach Pete Liptrap said. "We saw Tri-Valley down at (Ohio University's) summer camp and we played them a few years ago in an OHSAA foundation game. We're not totally unfamiliar with them, but we have a lot to learn about them."

Tri-Valley, which competes in the Muskingum Valley League, is led by 6-foot-3 sophomore forward Avery Williams and 5-7 junior guard Kris Michael. Williams was averaging 10.6 points and 6.3 rebounds through 19 games; Michael was averaging 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals.

Whichever team emerges from that bracket has an almost-certain meeting with top-seeded Northland in a district semifinal March 7. The Vikings play 0-20 Central Crossing in the first round Thursday, Feb. 23, then would play 0-20 Columbus West in the second round Wednesday, Feb. 29. All games will be at Marysville.

North might not have senior forward Jake Butt, who missed the final two regular-season games with a shoulder injury. Liptrap was unsure late last week whether Butt will be cleared by the tournament opener.

"Whenever you lose 17 points and about seven and a half rebounds a game and the player that usually guards the opponent's best player, that's a big loss that no one player will be able to fill," Liptrap said. "Everybody will have to step up more."