Taco Charlton and Jake Butt of the Pickerington High School Central and North boys basketball teams acknowledge they are soaking up the atmosphere of every game a little more than in the past.
That's because their seasons will end well before those of their respective teams.
The University of Michigan football recruits each decided to play basketball this year despite having opted for early enrollment in college. Classes begin Jan. 9 in Ann Arbor, Mich., but the lure of squeezing in a few final high school games proved too much to ignore.
"I'm just trying to help the team, trying to get them off to a good start so they get a good (district tournament) seeding. Basically, it's more just doing it for the team than for myself," said Charlton, a 6-foot-6 forward/center who was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district last year and is expected to be a defensive lineman in college. "It took awhile (to decide). I always knew I wanted to play. (On Nov. 26), I called coach (Jerry Francis). He was ready to welcome me back. If I could help the team, he'd let me."
Butt also made his decision Nov. 26, two days after the Panthers' football team lost 26-21 to eventual Division I state champion Cincinnati Moeller in a state semifinal.
"One of my teammates, DeVon Price, was after me pretty good to play," said Butt, a 6-6 forward/center who averaged a team-high 16.6 points last year and was first-team all-league and second-team all-district. "This is the last time I'm going to play competitive basketball. It is a little bittersweet. I have my dreams (of playing college football) in front of me, but I know I'm leaving behind a lot."
Butt scored 16 points in the Panthers' opener, a 61-32 win at Teays Valley on Dec. 4.
Neither Butt nor Charlton was certain last week how many games each would play.
Butt, who will participate in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 5 in San Antonio, said he could play "between four and six games," which means he might be finished after a Friday, Dec. 14, game at Lancaster or as late as Dec. 21, when the Panthers visit Reynoldsburg.
Francis said he hopes to keep Charlton as late as Jan. 4 against Newark, the Tigers' 10th game of the season.
Standing out in that stretch is the first Tigers-Panthers game of the season Tuesday, Dec. 18, at Central.
"We're not going to be selfish," Francis said. "We have a good group of guys who appreciate what Taco has established on the basketball court. There are no hard feelings. I'll work him in slow and let him get his feet underneath him so he has every opportunity to perform at the highest level."
Central swept North last year, winning 65-48 and 63-44 in OCC-Ohio Division play. The Tigers lead the all-time series 6-3.
"Our conference is going to be really strong," Panthers coach Pete Liptrap said before the season. "Pick Central's obviously going to be good. ... We're a team that's in a little bit of limbo, but it is what it is and you just have to deal with it."
Tigers, Panthers girls set to meet
The first Central-North girls game of the season will take place Tuesday, Dec. 18, at North.
The Panthers swept the Tigers a year ago, winning 73-27 and 50-45. North leads the all-time series 7-3.
"In the second half of last season it finally hit us that there were things we could do that were within our control to help make our season a little better," Tigers junior forward Kiana Thomas said of the closer score in the second game. "We picked things up."
The teams will play again Jan. 29. The boys game will be at North and the girls game will be at Central.