Most games between Pickerington High School Central and North, no matter the sport, tend to be personal on some level to at least some of the participants.
Count junior forward Allie Luther of the Central girls basketball team in that group.
Entering a home game against the Panthers on Jan. 29, Luther hadn't forgotten a 73-27 loss at North on Dec. 9, 2011. Central inched closer in the next two meetings, losing 50-45 in the second OCC-Ohio Division matchup last season and 43-37 on Dec. 18 in the first round of league play, but the disappointment lingered.
After Central's 47-45 win in which Luther scored 13 points -- capped by a three-point play in overtime that gave the Tigers the lead for good -- she and her teammates exhaled.
"They blew us out that game (in 2011) and we took some criticism for that and we lost respect," Luther said. "It was very big for us to do this tonight, to get some respect from the community and our school. Going into the (Division I district) tournament, it'll definitely boost our confidence."
That win, coupled with a 57-34 victory over Grove City on Feb. 1, put the Tigers at 14-6 overall and 7-5 in the OCC-Ohio entering a game Feb. 5 at Newark. That's twice as many wins as Central earned last season when it finished 7-14. According to coach James Stutzman, the win over North is indicative of the Tigers' mental and physical growth this season.
Central led for much of the first meeting with the Panthers this season. In the second matchup, the Tigers trailed 40-34 with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left. But instead of crumbling, they rallied to force overtime.
"I just told them to get out there, do what we can do and force some errors on their part. That's what we did," Stutzman said. "They really played nice together and we had to foul and had to do a few things that were not necessarily normal, but it paid off. We practiced them and, now in that situation, it paid off.
"I congratulated the girls. I hope this is something we can build on and gain that mental strength, which is what we'll need if we want to compete come tournament time."
Other coaches have taken notice of Central's improvement. The Tigers are seeded 10th for the district tournament, one spot behind the Panthers. Central will play host to Upper Arlington in the first round at 7 p.m. Feb. 16, and North will open against visiting Marion-Franklin at 7 p.m. Feb. 14.
"We don't try to talk about the tournament too much with (the players)," Stutzman said. "The coaches, we talk quite a bit about trying to put ourselves in the right position."
This is the highest seed for North since the school opened in 2003. Its previous highest seed was seventh in 2006.
North coach Dave Butcher passed the first time his team was called during the draw Feb. 3 at Gahanna. The next team to select, Central, chose its slot in the Bloom-Carroll bracket, which is highlighted by top-seeded Reynoldsburg. When the selection process returned to Butcher, he chose the Jonathan Alder bracket, which also includes second-seeded Gahanna, sixth-seeded Westerville North and seventh-seeded Olentangy.
"We weren't real clear on what direction we wanted to go," said Butcher, whose team entered the week 12-8 overall and 7-5 in the OCC-Ohio. "Central happened to be the one below us, but that didn't affect our draw. We wanted to see what that next seed would do. (Stutzman) actually took the other line we were looking at. That was one, but then again you have to play Reynoldsburg. ... Our goal has always been to win the district. We felt our best chance of getting there was in this bracket, but there's a chance we could lose earlier, too. It's a gamble and we've taken it before."
North's tournament opener is the only first-round game not being played Feb. 16. The Panthers' game was moved because the school is playing host to a sectional wrestling tournament on Feb. 16.
Butcher battling Zink in career victories
Butcher missed two chances to earn his 682nd career win against Central and in a 49-37 loss to Reynoldsburg on Feb. 1. That would have put him a win ahead of Beavercreek's Ed Zink and would have been a state record at the time of those games, but Zink got his 682nd win Feb. 2 when the Beavers defeated Springfield 57-26.
Entering the week, Zink had a 682-203 record and Butcher was 681-87. The Panthers played Feb. 5 at Groveport and Beavercreek played Feb. 6 against Huber Heights Wayne, which entered the week 5-14.
The previous state record for wins was 657, set by Karen Wittrock at Rocky River Lutheran West from 1968-2009.