An otherwise nondescript Thursday might as well have been Christmas for Pickerington High School North girls basketball players Brittany Johnson and Jordan Toohey.
Sidelined since late summer with leg injuries they thought might cost them their senior seasons, Johnson and Toohey finally went full-bore in practice Jan. 16, at least two weeks ahead of what they anticipated before the season.
"It's what we've been hoping for the entire season," Johnson said. "It was just a dagger when we were all hurt, and now Jordan and I are back. It feels very good."
Johnson, a Quinnipiac University signee who averaged 12.1 points last year, sustained a microfracture in her right knee in an AAU tournament in late July. The same week, Toohey -- who has signed to play at Radford -- blew out her left ACL.
Without them and junior guard Emily Thomas, who is expected to miss the rest of the regular season after tearing her right ACL on Dec. 20 against Reynoldsburg, North struggled to a 9-8 overall record after playing in the McDonald's Shootout on Jan. 18 and 20 at Villa Park (Ill.) Willowbrook.
"It was sort of like Christmas for them (Jan. 16)," coach Dave Butcher said. "It was like watching a little kid, when they got their first toy or something from Santa Claus, their enthusiasm and their smiles. Their love of the game was coming through.
"It says a lot about those girls that they want to play. They're not playing for themselves, they're playing for their team and their school, and that's what's nice. They've got their reward for high school (a chance to play college basketball). Their coming back now is a payback deal to this program, and it's very special."
Toohey was cleared to play Jan. 10 and saw her first varsity action Jan. 18, scoring five points in a 60-20 win over Des Plaines (Ill.) Maine West. North lost to Chicago Heights (Ill.) Bloom 65-60 on Jan. 20.
Johnson said her doctor cleared her to practice, but not play, during a checkup in early January.
"I asked when he thought I could play and I told him when our last game was," Johnson said. "He released me to start getting into practice maybe two weeks ago. I want to get back in the next couple weeks. I'll definitely be back for our last game, maybe one or two games of the regular season, but hopefully more."
North has five regular-season games remaining, all in the OCC-Ohio Division. The Panthers, who are 5-4 in the league, play host to Lancaster on Friday, Jan. 24, and Pickerington Central on Tuesday, Jan. 28. They then play road games at Reynoldsburg on Jan. 31 and Groveport on Feb. 3 before their regular-season finale Feb. 7 at home against Gahanna.
"In practice, it feels just like where we left off last year," said senior center Morgan Bassett-Smith, a Division I signee heading to New Hampshire. "Right now, it's all about just getting the cobwebs out."
Butcher and his team hope the return of Johnson and Toohey sparks a turnaround. The Panthers lost two league games last week, 47-42 in overtime at Gahanna on Jan. 13 and 55-42 at Newark on Jan. 15.
"The majority of the time, we've played as hard as you can possibly play," Butcher said. "But as far as the experience of being a varsity player and understanding situations and the importance of not turning the ball over (and making) big plays during a game, we've had to understand how to physically play a basketball game as well as mentally. On top of that, we're in the toughest conference in the state, and our schedule was set up to have these kids healthy."
Tigers seek season sweep of Panthers
Central will go for its third consecutive win over North when the teams meet Tuesday, Jan. 28, at North.
Taylor Johnson had 19 points and Katrina Williams added 13 in the Tigers' 49-43 win over the Panthers on Dec. 17. Central, which is 11-5 overall and 6-3 in the OCC-Ohio, leads the all-time series 8-5.
Thomas had 12 points for North in the December game. Bassett-Smith added 10.
Central is tied for third in the league with Gahanna, behind Reynoldsburg (9-0) and Newark (7-2).
The Tigers defeated Lancaster 62-43 on Jan. 17. Then in the All-Ohio Girls Prep Shootout at Central, the Tigers defeated Mifflin 53-29 on Jan. 18 and lost to Hudson 50-45 on Jan. 19.
"Some of the best teams in the area are in our league -- Newark, Reynoldsburg, Gahanna and North -- and we've struggled with them in the past. Now we're finding out we can play with them. They need to know they belong with those teams," coach Johnathan Hedgepeth said. "The most important thing for us is on the defensive end of the floor and we're starting to do well there. But now we're starting to pride ourselves on our offense. Things are coming together, but it's a process."