District Split Anniversary
Central, North strong as ever
As Pickerington High School's enrollment ballooned in the late 1990s and early 2000s, athletics director Mark Aprile closely watched how other districts handled the openings of new schools.
Aprile saw the likes of Central Crossing, Dublin Scioto and Hilliard Darby struggle as they were expected to compete with teams from larger, established schools within the OCC. Scioto's 1995 Division II state championship in football, accomplished with a coach and many players who had competed at the original Dublin High School, was an exception.
So as the fall 2003 opening of Pickerington North loomed, Aprile and the other powers-that-be within the school district took steps to ensure neither high school would be left without a paddle athletically. Whenever possible, multiple teams were fielded at the ninth-grade and junior varsity levels to ensure athletes who remained at the original school, soon to be known as Pickerington Central, or were headed to North would have the seasoning to compete in the OCC, which has long been regarded as the state's toughest conference.
"We had six, seven and eight teams in some sports," said Aprile, who was North's athletics director from 2003-11 and now is the district's director of student activities. "We had large numbers to begin with then, so there was a great opportunity to make sure that when we split, athletes at both schools would have had opportunities to compete and improve. We had teams competing all over the place, and winning."
As the 10-year anniversary of the split approaches -- to be precise, it will take place at 7:51 a.m. Aug. 24, exactly a decade after North's doors first opened for classes -- the district can argue its plans worked to perfection on both sides of town.
Central and North have combined for 201 league, district, regional and state team championships, 138 of those having been won by North programs. Central's boys basketball team lays claim to the only state title, having won the Division I championship in 2012.
"You look at all the other districts that split, and I'd say we've probably come out the best," said North girls basketball coach Dave Butcher, who coached the original school to six state titles from 1985 to 1999.
Balance of power
The split came as Pickerington was enjoying its athletics heyday.
The boys basketball team won three consecutive OCC-Ohio Division championships from 2000-02. The girls cross country team claimed three league titles in six years leading up to the split, the boys tennis team won six in a row, the boys track and field team had four consecutive titles and the girls tennis team had won five in six years.
The girls basketball team was on a district title streak that began in 1989, with state championships in 1985, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1998 and 1999 and 181 consecutive conference wins.
Despite the majority of coaches, including Butcher, Molly Feesler (softball), Pete Liptrap (boys basketball), Kitty McGrievy (girls golf), Casey Milligan (boys golf) and Darrin Monhollen (boys soccer) leaving for North, Central believed it was on better footing because it was the established school.
All of the above still are coaching those sports at North, with the exception of Liptrap -- who retired in June -- and Feesler, who became North's athletics director last year.
"It was a natural transition for us," said Central football coach Jay Sharrett, the team's defensive coordinator from 1997-2002 who succeeded 31-year head coach Jack Johnson in June 2003. "We wanted to keep the tradition of Tiger football alive, to make sure we remained a competitive program and at the same time, make sure our alums had somewhere to hang their hat. We've been very fortunate to cultivate the base we have."
Central enters the 2013 season having won seven consecutive league championships. The Tigers lost in the Division II state final in 2006, 26-7 to Piqua, and fell 34-13 to Cleveland St. Ignatius in the 2011 Division I state final.
The girls basketball program remained strong throughout the 2000s, winning five league titles in a row after the split and making the state tournament in 2006. The baseball team won league titles in 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009 and remains consistently in the upper half of the OCC-Ohio, and the girls tennis team will seek its sixth consecutive league championship this fall under 15th-year coach Kelli Rings.
North played strictly for the postseason in 2003-04. Like Olentangy Liberty and Westerville Central -- the other two schools that opened in 2003 -- the Panthers didn't join the OCC until 2004.
"(Being independent) gave us the chance to get ourselves established and acclimated," Aprile said. "We weren't thrown into the fire right anyway."
Nowadays, it's tough to turn around at North without bumping into a winner.
The girls volleyball team became a powerhouse in recent years under former coach Kris Kern. It enters this season on an 86-match league winning streak, with four Division I district titles since 2006.
Kern, who was 172-14 at North and is 686-71 lifetime, left for new OCC member Canal Winchester in May.
Eighth-year baseball coach Tim Thomas has led the Panthers to five league titles, a district championship and a state runner-up finish in 2009. The boys golf team has won eight consecutive league titles, the boys cross country team has eight league titles and a regional championship in the past nine years, and the girls soccer team has won seven district championships and two regional titles since 2004.
North's football team is coming off its best season, going 12-2, splitting the league championship with Central and losing 26-21 to Cincinnati Moeller in a Division I state semifinal. Some of those players contributed to the boys track team's regional championship and state runner-up finish this past spring.
That success was envisioned not only by the district, but by a handful of 2004 graduates who opted to leave Central for North unlike most of their classmates.
Marscilla Packer led the Panthers girls basketball team to a district championship, the 16th of what became 23 consecutive for Butcher dating to the original school. Every starter from the 2002-03 Pickerington team moved to North.
Hilary King and Lauren Seeds were the only seniors on the 2004 North softball team that advanced to the Division I state tournament, losing to Uniontown Lake 2-0 in a semifinal.
Packer, who is Central's second all-time leading scorer (1,583 points) despite having played only three seasons there, went on to play at Ohio State and overseas. King pitched for a year at Rutgers, then for three years at George Washington.
"I wanted the chance to come in and make a big impact molding a program," King said. "I talked to coach Feesler and she made it clear that I should do what I wanted. We had two seniors and maybe three girls with any varsity experience at all, and we just kept getting better. That's what it was about for me, getting the program on solid footing and making sure we exuded success in everything we did."
Breaking the ice
Perhaps appropriately, the first meeting between the schools was in girls basketball. Central, which was coached by former Butcher assistant Ken Schneider, defeated North 54-47 on March 10, 2006, in a Division I regional final at Otterbein. While the meeting came too soon for some members of the community, others were more than ready.
"There's always been a silent tension and hostility between both high schools," then-Central sophomore Abbie Thomas, a cheerleader for the Tigers, said in a Columbus Dispatch story the day of the game. "Now, we're going to be able to prove ourselves."
Those feelings recently were seconded by former Central athletics director Pete Laihr, who served in that capacity from 2003-11 and now teaches industrial technology at both high schools. He said some ill feelings existed after the split, largely from some who remained at the original school. Asked whether the post-split transition was smooth, Laihr paused.
"That depends on what you mean by a smooth transition," he said. "A lot of people then didn't think it was. When Pickerington North was built, a lot of people felt the district wasn't taking care of Central as far as facilities were concerned. Since then, a lot of upgrades and renovations have taken place. Things have evened out, and a lot of the nastiness from that time has gone away."
For the most part, enrollment has remained steady.
More than 2,500 students attended Pickerington in 2002-03. The next year, North had 1,406 students to 1,114 at Central.
As of October 2012, the most recent date for which enrollment figures were available from the Ohio High School Athletic Association, North had 1,410 students and Central had 1,281.
Once the OCC realigned before the 2008-09 school year and ended a decades-old mandate against league competition between schools in the same district, Central and North were put into the OCC-Ohio, where they remain today.
"That was a good thing to wait five years or so," Laihr said. "The OCC really forced our hand there, but that was a good enough period of time to let things settle out. The kids who were eighth-graders at the time of the split were out of school by (2008), and I still think it was the right call to not make all the kids on either team face their friends that soon."
'We are Pickerington'
Central boys basketball coach Jerry Francis wasted little time Feb. 10 picking his spot on the Division I district tournament bracket, slotting the Tigers into a position where their district semifinal game would be played March 6 at North.
It might have been the Tigers' best performance of the year. Then-juniors Connor Kern and Jae'Sean Tate each scored a game-high 20 points for 10th-seeded Central, which closed the first half on an 8-0 run and opened the second half with a 20-5 spurt as the Tigers upset seventh-seeded Dublin Coffman 73-54.
Asked whether his team felt especially comfortable playing in its hometown, Francis smiled.
"We are Pickerington, you know?" he said, referring to a saying heard throughout the city and seen on purple and white bumper stickers. "This did feel like home. We sure played like it."
Four weeks earlier in the same gym, North wrestling coach Brad Harris -- the 152-pound state champion in 1996 who won a Pickerington season-record 52 matches that year -- admitted coaching against his alma mater brings mixed emotions. His Panthers defeated the Tigers 36-27 in a dual Feb. 7 to tie Central for the OCC-Ohio championship.
"There's an extra emphasis on this match on both sides. The kids were really pumped for this," said Harris, who spent several minutes after the match talking to his former coach at Pickerington, Nick Burgess, who coached seven state champions and 25 more state placers from 1974-2006. "It is (special for me, too). That's my old coach over there (Burgess) and I can't put into words how much he's meant to me. That's still my alma mater. I root for Central all the time except for when we wrestle them."
Butcher, who became Ohio's all-time winningest girls basketball coach this past season, had his first chance to pass Beavercreek's Ed Zink for that honor Jan. 29 at Central. The Tigers defeated the Panthers 47-45 in overtime, but Butcher moved into first place later in the season. He now is 686-88 in 30 seasons, just ahead of Zink (683-205 in 37 seasons).
"The gym over there (at Central) is always going to be a special place," said Butcher, who taught at both schools in 2003-04. "We were able to put six (state championship) banners up in there. I can't see a time when I'll walk into that gym or the locker room there and not recall all those times. It's just something you don't forget."
Despite his football team's increasingly important rivalry with North, Sharrett is glad the community aspect remains prevalent between the schools.
"Our kids are at North's prom and their kids are at ours," he said. "If one of the schools is in a big game, you can bet people from the other school will be there, too. We're not a small town by any stretch, but the community is still one."