The Pickerington High School North girls basketball team did not enter the season with the starting lineup that 11th-year coach Dave Butcher had anticipated.
The Panthers lost only one starter from last season to graduation in Christy Macioce, who averaged 14.8 points and 11 rebounds last season to garner first-team all-league and all-district honors and now plays for the University of Dayton.
However, North will be without two returning starters for most, if not all, of the season to injury in 5-foot-11 senior forwards Brittany Johnson and Jordan Toohey.
Johnson, a Quinnipiac University signee who averaged 12.1 points last season, sustained a microfracture in her right knee in an AAU tournament in late July. The same week, Toohey, who has committed to play for Radford University, blew out her left anterior cruciate ligament.
Both players said they hope to be medically cleared to play by February.
North has three other returning starters in junior guards Aubrey Lukacsko (5-5) and Emily Thomas (5-8) and 6-2 senior post player Morgan Bassett-Smith, a University of New Hampshire recruit who overcame a broken ankle this past offseason.
Thomas, a Division I recruit who averaged 9.6 points last year and was honorable mention all-league, missed five games last season because of a broken ankle sustained in the fall of 2012 while playing soccer. Lukacsko filled the role of starting point guard until Thomas returned to the lineup.
"(While) you're extremely proud and happy for the girls, you still reflect on what might have been," said Butcher, whose team opened with a 54-48 win at Westerville South on Nov. 22 and lost to Zanesville 43-36 in the Gary West Memorial Tip-Off Classic on Nov. 23 at Reynoldsburg.
"Now, we go from where I think we were as good as any team in the Central District to a team that basically goes back (to being) young again. It's not what I had hoped for."
Other returnees who saw playing time last season are 5-6 junior guard Jordan Andrews, 5-10 junior forward Alayna Khan and 5-7 sophomore guard Paige Matijasich.
The Panthers hope Khan can play both inside and outside to help fill the void created by the loss of Macioce.
"(Khan) will be a big help," Thomas said. "Since Mace left, Alayna has kind of filled her shoes."
Also on the team are 5-7 junior guard Courtney Kemmerling, 6-0 sophomore post player Zharia Lenoir, sophomore guards Lauren Lipscomb and Hannah Smith, sophomore guard/forward Shay Tanner and 5-11 freshman forward Danielle Bradley.
The 5-8 Lipscomb is a transfer from Olentangy Orange, where she missed her freshman season with an ACL injury.
The injuries to Johnson and Toohey add to the challenge of improving on last season, in which North finished 17-9 overall, went 9-5 in the OCC-Ohio Division to tie Pickerington Central for third behind Reynoldsburg (14-0) and Gahanna (11-3) and lost to Gahanna 49-46 in a Division I district final.
After winning a district championship in each of their first eight seasons, the Panthers have lost in a district final each of the past two.
"We just have to try to figure out what we're going to be. It could take awhile," Butcher said.
"It's not that we don't have athletes, but we don't have a lot of size. Jordan and Brittany are still seniors and have more size than a lot of kids. It's tough to replace them."