The Pickerington High School North baseball team won 23 of 26 regular-season games, so there wasn't much of a chance for the Panthers to lose stride.
But after winning the OCC-Ohio Division championship by two games, coach Tim Thomas pointed to a 17-0, five-inning victory at Groveport on April 26 -- one day after a 6-0 loss at Pickerington Central -- as a day when his team began to gain momentum for a stretch run that included the league title and earning the top seed in the Division I district tournament.
North didn't lose another regular-season game and began its postseason May 15 with a second-round home game against 33rd-seeded Reynoldsburg.
"We challenged our kids, especially our seniors, to step up and lead by example," Thomas said. "We didn't want to let that loss (to Central) knock us off track. I loved the effort and attitude we came out with (against Groveport), and the next day in a doubleheader against Upper Arlington (11-1 and 13-0 wins), and ever since. These kids have shown me over and over that they're mentally tough. They play hard seven full innings every night."
Sophomore pitcher Logan Giddings threw a complete game and homered, a solo shot in the second inning, in a league-clinching 3-1 win at Grove City on May 7. That made him 4-0, and through 25 games he had a 0.26 ERA with seven walks and 11 strikeouts in 27 innings.
"The beginning of the year, this was the kind of the year I was hoping for," Giddings said. "The past few weeks, I think we've had a lot of intensity and been picking each other up."
Giddings helped pick up the staff after senior pitcher Kyle Montell was lost early in the year with a shoulder injury. Through 25 games, junior Justin Childers was 3-1 with a 3.27 ERA, 15 strikeouts and six walks in 15 innings, and senior Corey Black was 2-1 with a 2.47 ERA in 17 innings.
"Pitching and defense have been solid, and they'll have to be in the tournament, just like in the regular season," Thomas said.
In winning their fourth league championship in Thomas' eight seasons, the Panthers (12-2) finished ahead of Central (10-4), Grove City (9-5), Gahanna (8-6), Lancaster (8-6), Newark (6-8), Reynoldsburg (3-11) and Groveport (0-14). North's previous league titles were in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
North is seeking its first district championship since 2009 and second in the program's 10 seasons. That year, the Panthers advanced to the Division I state final, losing to Cincinnati Moeller 5-2.
If the Panthers won May 15, they will play 16th-seeded Central Crossing or 22nd-seeded Hilliard Davidson in a district semifinal at 5 p.m. Monday, May 20, at Dublin Coffman. That winner will play 12th-seeded Central, 13th-seeded Hilliard Darby, 18th-seeded Lancaster or 34th-seeded Newark in a district final at 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, at Otterbein University.
Of those teams, the Panthers split OCC-Ohio series against Central and Newark and swept Lancaster. North defeated Central 9-0 in their first meeting April 23, a game in which Giddings threw a five-hitter. The Panthers defeated Newark 11-1 in five innings April 8 and lost to the Wildcats 3-1 on April 10, then beat Lancaster 7-1 on April 12 and 8-3 on April 15.
The district champion will play in a regional semifinal May 30 at Coffman.
Tigers finish league play strong
Sophomore utility player Collin Federer's pinch-hit, two-run single in the bottom of the seventh inning against Gahanna on May 8 gave Central an 8-7 win in its OCC-Ohio finale.
The Tigers bounced back from a 2-1 loss to Gahanna on May 6 in which senior pitcher Devon Fisk, a Bowling Green signee, threw a one-hitter and Central outhit the Lions 4-1. That loss eliminated the Tigers from league title contention.
"(Federer) is a sophomore who's come up the last few games and done a great job for us and had a spark with the bat. He stepped up and got the job done," said coach Andy Takos, whose team entered the week 15-7 overall.
Central opened the Division I district tournament at home May 15 against Newark. The winner will play Darby or Lancaster in a district semifinal at 5 p.m. Monday, May 20, at Olentangy, and that winner will play North, Central Crossing, Davidson or Reynoldsburg in a district final at 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, at Otterbein.
Of those teams, the Tigers split an OCC-Ohio series with Lancaster (winning 13-12 on April 8 and losing 5-3 on April 10), went 2-0 against Reynoldsburg (winning 15-1 on April 15 and 18-1 on April 18) and lost to Darby 15-7 on April 20.
Takos said the keys to a quality postseason run are simple.
"We have to play better defensively," he said. "The runs (Gahanna) scored (May 8), a lot of them were not earned, whether it was a walk or a guy getting on with an error. It's the little things like that that we have to do better to make a little run in the tournament."