From what Pickerington High School North boys volleyball coach Marci Truex has heard, people were talking about her team during the preseason.

From what Pickerington High School North boys volleyball coach Marci Truex has heard, people were talking about her team during the preseason.

Most of what they were saying wasn't flattering, however.

"I've heard through the grapevine no one is expecting very much from us," said Truex, who is in her eighth season leading the Panthers. "I'm very excited about this group. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."

North finished 16-10 overall last season. The Panthers lost to Hilliard Davidson 25-16, 25-27, 25-21, 25-22 in the second round of the Division I East Region tournament after defeating Thomas Worthington 25-14, 25-17, 25-18 in the first round.

North, which opens Friday, March 23, at home against Watterson, lost five players from a year ago to graduation, including three four-year letterwinners in outside hitters Jesse Fausnaugh and Sam Lambert and middle hitter Ben Schneider.

"I'm hoping (the returnees) took away (from the 2011 graduates) how to be a team and stick together," Truex said. "That's what they are going to need for this year. We're rebuilding a lot of the program."

North has four returnees in seniors Scott Conway (6-foot-5, middle hitter/outside hitter/setter), Jimmy Martin (6-1, setter/outside hitter) and Evan Shvach (6-3, outside hitter/middle hitter) and sophomore James Klamo (6-3, setter/outside hitter). Conway was named honorable mention all-OCC-Ohio Division last year.

Others on the team include junior Donald Sisco (6-0, opposite hitter) and sophomores Matt Bernstein (6-1, middle hitter), Andrew Cardenas (5-5, libero/defensive specialist) and Drew Waybright (5-11, outside hitter/middle hitter).

North went 6-4 in the OCC-Capital last year to finish third, behind Mount Vernon (10-0) and Gahanna (7-3) and ahead of Hilliard Bradley (5-5), Delaware (2-8) and Pickerington Central (0-10). "The OCC-Capital is going to be challenging as it always is," Truex said. "Mount Vernon is always strong and Gahanna should be solid. Skill-wise, we're going to be OK. As long as we stick together and be a team, we're going to surprise some people."

Central coach is former North player

Luke Rininger, a 2006 North graduate, once considered Central a rival school. Now he's in his first season coaching the Tigers.

"Yeah, it is a little bit different. I went to North and I will always be a Panther," said Rininger, whose team opens Saturday, March 24, at Thomas Worthington with DeSales and Westerville South. "I like the school spirit here. It feels good to be here."

Since 2006, Central has had five coaches, including co-coaches Rachael Hanagan and Greg Moore last season. Central finished 2-16 overall a year ago, losing to Hilliard Davidson 25-12, 25-16, 25-10 in the opening round of the Division I East Region tournament.

Rininger, who has played volleyball for the past 13 years, wants his players to know that he's committed to the program long-term.

"It's been a challenge," he said of the number of coaching changes the program has gone through. "They probably think I'm going to leave next year, but I plan on staying around if I can. My long-term goal is to build a program."

The Tigers return six players from a year ago in seniors Brick Bankes (5-8, outside hitter) and Danny Clay (5-11, right-side hitter) and juniors Hassan Farooqui (5-6, libero), Kevin Hill (6-3, middle hitter), Scott Hungerman (6-0, outside hitter) and Toby Katz (5-8, setter).

Also on the team are sophomores Adam Davis (5-9, defensive specialist), Corey Kovaleski (5-7, setter) and Jeff Wolfel (6-3, right-side hitter) and freshmen Nat Mekonnen (6-1, middle hitter) and Brandon Stone (5-8, defensive specialist), each of whom is new to the sport.

"We've spent a lot of time teaching fundamentals," Rininger said. "We have to start from scratch and teach them the very beginning-level stuff.

"One of the keys is having a positive attitude. If you keep a positive attitude and give it 100 percent, you can pull out a win against better teams."