With just three key players back from a team that won the program's first Division I district championship, Westerville Central High School girls volleyball coach Shaun Servick wondered whether the Warhawks might be in for a down season.
That was far from what occurred.
The Warhawks followed back-to-back outright OCC-Cardinal Division championships by capturing a share of the title with Hilliard Bradley.
Then in the district tournament, Central earned a runner-up finish.
After going a program-best 23-3 a year ago, the Warhawks finished 22-4.
"This is the year we were supposed to be rebuilding," Servick said. "It's awful to look at their faces and still tell them they did well, but I'm proud as heck of what they did and I love them to death."
Central, which was the sixth seed for the district tournament, lost to fourth-seeded Grove City 18-25, 25-15, 25-21, 25-15 in a district final Oct. 26 at Bloom-Carroll.
The Warhawks led 9-4 in the third game and 9-5 in the fourth but couldn't hold on in either.
Central also beat 42nd-seeded Delaware (25-11, 25-5, 25-12 on Oct. 15), 39th-seeded Licking Heights (25-15, 25-9, 25-9 on Oct. 16) and fifth-seeded Kilbourne (25-19, 25-13, 20-25, 25-15 on Oct. 24) in the tournament.
The Warhawks had a 31-match league winning streak snapped when they lost to Bradley 25-19, 25-23, 25-17 on Sept. 3. They also lost to the Jaguars 25-21, 25-14, 25-22 on Sept. 26, but Bradley was swept in league play by Dublin Scioto.
Bradley and Central each went 12-2 to share the title ahead of Scioto (11-3), Westerville North (9-5), Canal Winchester (6-8), Hilliard Darby and Westerville South (3-11) and Dublin Jerome (0-14).
Senior Maddie Cline (libero) and sophomore Katie Myers (opposite hitter) were first-team all-league, senior Kelly Piper (setter) made the second team and sophomore Bailey Line (outside hitter) was honorable mention.
Also eligible to return are junior Alex Kuhns (outside hitter) and sophomore Acacia Freeman (outside hitter).
"I don't think we could have had a stronger set of captains than what we had in Kelly Piper and Maddie Cline," Servick said. "Their leadership helped us be a conference champion. We've been in district finals in three of the past four years and we've won three straight conference championships. When the team stops to reflect on what we did, they're going to realize we've got one of the best programs in central Ohio."
North to return most of roster
Despite having just one senior in defensive specialist Morgan Morris, North improved by four wins from a year ago and finished 13-7 overall.
Battling injuries throughout the season, according to coach Aaron Hastings, were junior Natalia Szwabinsky (setter), junior Rebecca Skidmore (middle hitter) and sophomore Hope Bruce (middle hitter).
"This may be the youngest team to have gone through Westerville North (with us) having only one senior," Hastings said. "All of (the injuries) mixed in with being an inexperienced team made it a very stressful season because night in and night out you don't know what you're going to get. To have a winning season at the end is a great accomplishment."
North was seeded 14th for the district tournament but lost to visiting 22nd-seeded Darby 25-21, 25-14, 24-26, 24-26, 15-8 in a second-round match Oct. 16.
Skidmore made first-team all-league, junior Halli Swiger (outside hitter) was second-team all-league, Bruce was special mention and junior Maddy Strayer (libero) was honorable mention.
According to Hastings, Szwabinsky led in assists, Skidmore led in kills and Strayer led in digs. Junior Shelby Lowder (defensive specialist) also was a key contributor.
"We achieved more than we expected as a young team," Hastings said. "If there's a feeling of disappointment setting in, it's because we started 10-3 and at that point we forgot what the realistic expectations were."
Wildcats set sights on getting over hump
South won eight overall and three league matches for the second consecutive season, but it seemed to second-year coach John Nguyen that his team was improved compared to a year ago.
In the first round of the district tournament Oct. 14 at 10th-seeded New Albany, the 26th-seeded Wildcats lost 25-19, 25-23, 25-23.
"That's the story of our season," Nguyen said. "It was another of those matches that we were in the whole time but we were not quite clicking on all cylinders. If we cut down on an error here or there, our season could have gone one way or the other."
South loses five seniors from a team that went 8-14 a year ago and 8-13 this season.
Seniors Taylor Smith (libero), Madison Russell (outside hitter/middle hitter) and Carlie Freeman (setter) will be key losses. Smith was honorable mention all-league.
Juniors Katie Baur (defensive specialist) and Chenelle Moore (middle hitter) and sophomores Betsy Baur (outside hitter), Kaylah Ivey (middle hitter), Shelby Pappas (setter) and Anna Woodson (middle hitter/outside hitter) are among the players who Nguyen expects to lead the team next year.
"What I really like about Westerville South is the support from the parents," Nguyen said. "They have been unbelievable and it's made my work here very easy."