The Pickerington High School North girls soccer team believed this would be the year it finally got over the hump.
Seeking their second Division I state championship game appearance and first since 2010, the Panthers ran into the same wall as last year. North lost to Mason 1-0 in overtime in a state semifinal Nov. 5 at Bellbrook -- matching the score, opponent and round of last year's first and only loss.
Even the site was the same.
"All year, we thought we had a great chance to make it to the final and win it all," said senior forward Morgan Bittengle, who finished with team highs of 23 goals and 13 assists as the Panthers went 19-1-1 overall and 7-0 in the OCC-Ohio Division. "We didn't talk much on the bus (ride home), but once we got back to the school our coach (Greg Van Kannel) made sure to remind us not many teams had gone as far as we did, let alone two years in a row. It's something to be proud of, but it's still disappointing."
Mason's Chloe Knue scored with 2 minutes, 2 seconds to play in the first overtime. Comets junior forward Rachel Holloway started the scoring play by winning a one-and-one battle with a defender and crossing the ball toward the center of the field. Knue emerged from a crowd of players about 15 yards from the goal and lined a kick into the lower right corner of the net.
North's best chances came after a penalty kick in the 34th minute -- when Bittengle's shot was easily handled by Mason goalkeeper Toni Bizzarro -- and early in overtime, when junior forward Megan Marasco hit the post.
Bizzarro finished with four saves. Panthers senior goalie Hannah Wilson made nine saves.
"That might have been her best performance of the year," Van Kannel said of Wilson, a first-team all-league and second-team all-district honoree who plans to play at Wittenberg. "She made two or three absolutely huge saves. Her play was phenomenal. She's the latest in a pretty strong line of goalies around here."
Bittengle was first-team all-state, first-team all-district and the OCC-Ohio Player of the Year, and junior forward Emily Thomas joined her on the all-league first team. Senior defender Casey Gerhard, senior midfielder Morgan Greer and Marasco were named second-team all-league, junior midfielder Aubrey Lukacsko was special mention all-league and junior midfielder Kelly Eisenhauer was honorable mention all-league.
Thomas, who had 10 goals and 11 assists, also was third-team all-district.
Marasco finished with 13 goals and five assists. Lukascko had 10 goals and nine assists. Greer, a Bellarmine University recruit, had two goals and eight assists.
The Panthers won their second consecutive OCC-Ohio championship and ninth league title in the program's 11 seasons, outscoring their league opponents 47-2 to finish ahead of Grove City (5-2), Pickerington Central (5-2), Gahanna (4-2-1), Reynoldsburg (3-3-1), Lancaster (2-5), Newark (1-6) and Groveport (0-7).
Seeded second in the district tournament, North took a first-round bye and won two home games, defeating 36th-seeded Groveport 9-0 in the second round Oct. 17 and 25th-seeded Hilliard Darby 5-1 in a semifinal Oct. 22.
Bittengle scored both goals in a 2-1 district final victory over seventh-seeded Dublin Jerome on Oct. 26 at Westerville North, including the game-winner with seven minutes left in the second overtime.
The Panthers needed overtime three nights later to outlast Marysville 3-2 in a regional semifinal at Gahanna. Freshman forward Cameron Shedenhelm scored with 8:45 left in the first overtime.
"She came off the bench and gave us big goals all year," Van Kannel said of Shedenhelm, whose 17 goals were second on the team to Bittengle. Shedenhelm also had 11 assists.
North defeated Watterson 2-0 in a regional final Nov. 2 at Gahanna.
"We scored 93 goals, which is probably the most we've ever scored in this program," Van Kannel said. "This team really came together. They were one of the best passing teams I've ever had. Every player was team-oriented."