The Pickerington High School Central girls tennis team lost only one player from last season to graduation, but 15th-year coach Kelli Rings treated tryouts and the early part of this season much like any other year.
Seniors Audrey Covert, Peyton Klein and Nithya Raya and juniors Madi Schott, Isis Thomas, Kyah Thomas and Nikkia Thompson return to a team that went 16-4 overall and 7-0 in the OCC-Ohio Division a year ago but did not advance anyone beyond the second round of the Division I district tournament.
"We have a lot of talent, but it just takes time to figure out who is the best fit where," Rings said. "We have a few young girls new on the team and the (returnees) have improved tremendously. We've had success, but nothing's ever guaranteed."
Central opened Aug. 13 with a 5-0 win over Olentangy before beating Liberty Township Lakota East 3-2 and Loveland 5-0 on Aug. 15.
Isis Thomas played first singles against Olentangy and Lakota East, with Thompson and Raya playing second and third singles, respectively. Klein and Schott, who advanced to district in doubles last season, have returned at first doubles.
Raya and Kyah Thomas reached the second round at district in doubles last year, falling one win shy of qualifying for state.
Second doubles was more of a tossup. Freshman Maddie Bechert teamed with junior Patricia Ladipo against Olentangy and Ladipo played with Covert against Lakota East.
Rings also plans to work freshman Jessie Weidner into the lineup on occasion at both singles and doubles.
Central began its OCC-Ohio schedule Aug. 20 at Lancaster. The Tigers, who are pursuing their sixth consecutive league championship, scored 77 of a possible 82 points in OCC-Ohio play a year ago.
Unlike in the past when points gained in league dual matches and the league tournament were combined to determine the league champion, the OCC-Ohio title will be decided solely by dual records this season.
The champions of the four OCC divisions will compete in a tournament for the overall OCC team title, with the second-place teams in each league competing in a separate tournament, and so on.
"There are still things I don't know about this team," Rings said.
"Things are good for the most part. They're definitely promising."
Young Panthers show potential
North coach Brian Hoff is cautiously optimistic and encouraged about his young team, which has only one senior.
The Panthers won their first two matches, defeating Hilliard Bradley 3-2 on Aug. 13 and beating Olentangy 3-2 on Aug. 15, before opening OCC-Ohio play Aug. 20 at Newark.
North, which finished 10-7 overall and placed third in the league last year, has returned three players in senior Rachel Sorensen and juniors Shaili Kothari and Maddie Schroeder. Sorensen played first singles against Olentangy and second singles against Bradley, with Kothari playing first singles against Bradley.
"(This is) one of our youngest teams, and certainly our least-experienced team in terms of varsity play," said Hoff, who has coached the Panthers since the school opened in 2003. "(We are) inexperienced but have a lot of potential. If we work hard, we could be a very good team by the end of the year. New girls are getting the opportunity to show what they can do at the varsity level. I'm looking forward to see what they are capable of doing."
The Panthers have four newcomers in junior Mykayla Hagaman, sophomores Madison Cruse and Julia Robson and freshman Shivani Kothari.
Schroeder played third singles against Bradley and teamed with Robson to play first doubles against Olentangy. Shivani Kothari played third singles against Olentangy and was paired with Robson at first doubles against Bradley. Cruse and Hagaman played second doubles in the first two matches.
"The lineup is still a work in progress," Hoff said.