With time winding down in a Division I district final, Westerville Central High School students recognized the boys basketball team's seven seniors with chants of "thank you seniors."
Those seniors were instrumental in the Warhawks' 19-6 season, which ended with a 64-53 loss to top-seeded Northland on March 8 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
"It was a fantastic group," coach Donovon Barrett said of the seniors. "They loved basketball, so when we asked them to be somewhere or do something, they did it. I couldn't ask for more from the seven guys."
Central remained in contention for most of the game, and when senior forward/guard Eric James hit a 3-pointer with 2 minutes left, the eighth-seeded Warhawks trailed 54-50.
Northland, however, used a 10-3 run to secure its fifth district title in six years. The Vikings were 21-4 before playing Dublin Coffman in a regional semifinal March 12.
James, who has verbally committed to Duquesne, led Central with 24 points and senior point guard Jalen Malone added 19.
"It was a fantastic season," Barrett said. "At times we felt like we were trying to turn around an aircraft carrier. It was definitely a process, but I enjoyed the experience. I think they enjoyed the experience and we reaped the rewards of trying to do things right."
James was named OCC-Cardinal Division Player of the Year and second-team all-district. He averaged a team-best 18.3 points and was second in rebounding at 5.2 per game.
Senior forward/center Kwamel Wade was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district, and Malone was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Wade led in rebounding at 6.1 per game and was second in scoring, averaging 13.1 points. Malone was third in scoring, averaging 11.3 points.
"It was a fun season," Malone said. "I was hoping we'd go a little further, but I had fun this year. I feel like this team could have made a lot of noise, but sometimes it doesn't work out like that."
Sophomore forward Will Maynus was honorable mention all-league and Barrett was named league Coach of the Year.
The Warhawks won their first league title since 2008, going 13-1 in the OCC-Cardinal to finish ahead of Westerville South (10-4), Dublin Jerome (9-5), Westerville North (8-6), Hilliard Darby (7-7), Hilliard Bradley (6-8), Canal Winchester (2-12) and Dublin Scioto (1-13).
"We won our league title and we played a lot of really good teams even out of the league, and we battled everyone," Barrett said. "We gave ourselves a chance to win every single game and that's what you ask for when you go out there. We enjoyed the experience, but we want to win, too, and those guys gave us an opportunity to win those games."
After a first-round bye in the district tournament, Central defeated 25th-seeded Westerville North 66-55 in the second round Feb. 26 at home and 10th-seeded Delaware 79-69 in a semifinal March 5 at Olentangy Orange.
Others eligible to return are juniors Anthony Arnold (wing player), Ben Cooper (center), Kyle Freytag (center), Braylen Thomas (guard) and Hunter Todd (guard/forward) and sophomores Erron James (guard) and Ramone McCorry (guard).
South falls in district semifinal
With its starting lineup comprised of underclassmen, South finished 16-6 overall.
The 11th-seeded Wildcats reached a district semifinal before losing to fourth-seeded Zanesville 62-51 on March 4 at Westerville Central.
Trailing 46-45, South was outscored 16-6 in the fourth quarter.
Sophomore guard Jordan Humphrey led the Wildcats with 13 points and sophomore guard Jelani Rogers had 10.
"We had our moments," coach Ed Calo said. "We just couldn't get over the hump. (Zanesville is) excellent, but I really expected us to take care of things."
After a first-round bye, South defeated 35th-seeded Hilliard Davidson 60-55 in the second round Feb. 28 at home.
The Wildcats lose one senior in guard Kashawn Guice.
Humphrey, who averaged 12.5 points and 6.7 rebounds, was first-team all-league.
Rogers (11.2 points) and sophomore forward Andre Wesson (10.9 points, 6 rebounds) were second-team all-league, and junior guard D.J. Dingess (6.6 rebounds) was honorable mention all-league.
Humphrey, Dingess and Wesson were honorable mention all-district.
Others eligible to return are juniors Yahya Afdal (guard), Chris Cook (guard) and John Edwards (guard), sophomores Daylan Haynie (guard) and Ennis Thomas (guard) and freshmen Anthony Mills (guard) and Kaleb Wesson (center).
"No matter how long you're at this, I know I'm not prepared for it to end," Calo said. "You go on the floor and you expect to win. All my preparation as far as talk afterwards is what we have to do next. We have good kids. We're young and that's not an excuse and is never acceptable, but our kids will get better. They'll work harder and this is a good experience for them."
'Lots of positives' for North this season
North finished 11-13 after losing to Westerville Central in the second round of the district tournament.
The Warriors defeated 16th-seeded and host Worthington Kilbourne 47-44 in the first round Feb. 21.
Guard Isaiah Keene, who was one of seven seniors, averaged a team-best 14.3 points and was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Senior forward R.J. Hutcherson averaged 13.9 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds and was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Sophomore guard Corey Benton averaged 10.3 points and was special mention all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Junior guard Austin Armwood averaged 7.0 points and was honorable mention all-league.
Also eligible to return are juniors Tanner Jefferies (forward), Alex Lawrence (guard) and Bobby Murgas (guard).
"There were lots of positives," coach Shan Trusley said. "We're really excited about the younger kids that we have, grades nine through 11. The seniors did a nice job of being role models for our kids on and off the floor. The younger kids learned a lot from them. We're excited about next year. We're excited about our entire group."