Two Pickerington High School North boys singles players and four doubles players smiled briefly after winning OCC-Ohio Division tennis championships May 11 at Reynoldsburg.
Then the Panthers let themselves enjoy a few minutes of team pictures and hobnobbing with family and friends in the wake of winning the team title. But once they piled in their team van to return to Pickerington, most of the smiles were replaced by a focused look of determination.
The Panthers don't want a repeat of last year, when after winning the league championship, no North player advanced beyond a Division I sectional tournament at Reynoldsburg.
"(The league tournament) is a giant day. This was our No. 1 goal, but now it's time for our next goal," said senior Ben Keen, who defeated Reynoldsburg's Brandon Person 6-3, 6-1 in the second-singles final. "First, we were focused on OCCs, but sectional is definitely the next thing. We just have to play like we play in practice. Don't get nervous and tight before matches."
Coach Brian Hoff said while his team was happy to win the OCC-Ohio title, the atmosphere was different from last year, when the Panthers upset three-time defending champion Gahanna to take first place.
"Last year, we were thrilled to do it. This year, we expected it, frankly," Hoff said. "There are other good teams in this league, but this was something we expected. We certainly accomplished that goal."
Sophomore Cameron Friedman won third singles, defeating Reynoldsburg's Josef Maher 6-2, 6-4 in the final. The first-doubles team of sophomore Matt Barry and senior Patrick Yen edged Gahanna's Chris Kusovski and John Spain 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) in their championship match, and the second-doubles team of freshman Avery Kreemer and junior Franco Platania beat Lancaster's Michael Gugel-Bryant and Ben Triplett 6-2, 6-1 in that bracket final.
After losing to Reynoldsburg's Cameron Raglin 6-2, 6-1 in a semifinal, sophomore Blaine Carr rebounded to defeat Pickerington Central junior Andy Taylor 6-1, 6-1 in the third-place match at first singles.
Because two league matches -- Central-Gahanna and Lancaster-Newark -- had not been played entering this week, the final league standings were incomplete. Before May 13, North had 40 points and finished league play at 7-0, followed by Reynoldsburg (31, 5-2), Gahanna (28, 5-1), Central (20, 4-2), Grove City (19, 3-4), Lancaster (10, 1-5), Groveport (7, 1-6) and Newark (2, 0-6).
The Panthers entered the week 13-2 overall with two regular-season matches remaining, May 14 against New Albany and Tuesday, May 21, at Dublin Scioto.
Hoff is juggling his lineup for the postseason, which begins with a Division I sectional Thursday, May 16, and Saturday, May 18, at Reynoldsburg. Friedman will remain at singles, but Carr and Keen will play doubles, pushing Platania and Kreemer into singles. Carr and Keen earned the second seed in doubles, and Barry and Yen are seeded third.
Friedman opens against Walnut Ridge junior Michael Mills. Kreemer will play Dublin Jerome freshman Nikil Rungaswamy, and Platania plays Walnut Ridge junior Lamin Sanneh in the first round.
Carr and Keen will open against Watkins Memorial junior Ryan Cash and senior Jordan Parks. Barry and Yen will play Olentangy juniors Huzaifa Doctor and Matt Dean in the first round.
The top four finishers in singles and doubles from each of the four sectional tournaments advance to the district tournament May 24 and 25 at Hilliard Davidson.
"We didn't play our best (at sectional) last year," Hoff said. "That's something we've been looking forward to all year is getting back here and playing like we're capable of doing."
New doubles team leads Tigers in OCC
Central had the spotlight at the end of the OCC-Ohio tournament, as the first-doubles team of sophomores Richie Siebert and Tyler Wharton edged Grove City seniors Chris Laine and Bryton Wise 7-5, 6-7, 7-5 in a third-place match that outlasted the rest of the day's competition by about an hour.
Siebert stepped in to replace injured sophomore Anthony D'Innocenzo, whom coach Kelli Rings expects to miss the remainder of the season because of a back injury.
"Richie stepped in and hadn't seen much time in the lineup," Rings said. "Their camaraderie showed right away. They played great tennis."
Freshman Chase Pratt also placed third, defeating Gahanna's Eric Chen 6-2, 6-2 in the third-place match at third singles. The second-doubles team of sophomore Jake Adams and junior Garrett Lennington finished seventh, as did sophomore Nick Vandervoort at second singles.
In the wake of D'Innocenzo's injury, Rings paired Adams and Wharton for the Tigers' home sectional May 16 and 18. They will open against Zanesville's Cody Dent and David Griffin, and Siebert and sophomore Kyle Maycock will play Groveport's Cory Johnson and Nate Parsons in the first round.
In singles, Taylor will play Newark freshman Derek Fritz or Hamilton Township sophomore Michael Hicks, Vandervoort will open against Hamilton Township sophomore Austin Mylar and Pratt will play Groveport senior Jordan Winegardner in a play-in match.
Central, which was 12-5 overall after a 4-1 loss to Gahanna on May 13, finished the regular season May 15 against Worthington Kilbourne. That followed a match May 14 at Scioto.
"This is a busy week, but when you're at the end of the season like we are, you can't make excuses. You've got to do what you've got to do," Rings said. "Hopefully the best tennis is coming this weekend."