The Pickerington High School North girls basketball team's preseason practices weren't quite what the program is used to -- much like the end of last season.
With only one senior and at least five sophomores likely to receive substantial playing time, 10th-year coach Dave Butcher is altering his system out of necessity and hopes any growing pains are fleeting.
"It's not what we're used to experience-wise," he said. "We've had to do a ton of fundamental work that really we have not had to do (in the past). Some days, we're at it the entire practice and we're not even playing up and down the floor. That's not what you want to be at with a varsity program."
Senior forward Christy Macioce, a 5-foot-11 guard/forward and University of Dayton signee, leads a squad coming off a Division I district runner-up finish. North went 21-3 overall and lost to Gahanna 63-46 in a district final, snapping a streak of eight consecutive district championships and 23 overall for Butcher dating to the original Pickerington High School, now Pickerington Central.
Macioce averaged 11.6 points last year and was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district. The Panthers must figure out how to replace the production of second-team all-league and first-team all-district point guard Jaila Bryant (12.7 points) and second-team all-league and third-team all-district forward Taylor Jones (12.6).
But they aren't the only losses. Sophomore point guard Emily Thomas, who was projected to start, isn't expected back until mid-December after suffering a broken ankle during soccer season, and junior forward Jessie Wachtman decided to concentrate on club volleyball this winter.
"It'll definitely be different," junior forward Jordan Toohey said. "Jaila and Taylor were so athletic and they kept the game going at a faster pace. We're going to have to distribute the ball a lot of ways."
North finished second in the OCC-Ohio Division last season at 12-2, behind Reynoldsburg (14-0) and ahead of Gahanna (9-5), Newark (8-6), Pickerington Central (6-8), Lancaster (5-9), Grove City (2-12) and Groveport (0-14).
Other returnees include juniors Brittany Johnson (forward), Morgan Bassett-Smith (forward/center) and sophomore Aubrey Lukascko, the likely starting point guard until Thomas returns.
Butcher said several sophomores will come off the bench, including point guard Jordan Andrews, post player Lauren Butler and versatile player Blake Collins.
"The kids have responded," Butcher said. "One thing it does is gives the girls a ton of opportunity to move up and down through the program. The ones who want to work and improve and play well game-to-game are going to get rewarded."
The Panthers opened by losing to Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown 58-52 in the Gary West Tipoff Classic on Nov. 23 at Reynoldsburg. Their league opener is Thursday, Nov. 29, at Grove City.
Toohey said the district final loss still motivates the team.
"It's been motivation since the first day of practice," she said. "We have to start out strong if we're going to make up for that (loss).
"We have to practice harder and play harder so we don't get stuck in that situation again."