As the dust settled from the Pickerington High School North boys cross country team's first appearance in the Division I state meet in eight years, coach Tim Starkey and his staff placed more emphasis on being the second-place team from central Ohio than the Panthers' overall finish.
And as the offseason begins, Starkey hopes a year that featured OCC-Ohio Division and district championships will strengthen the team's foundation despite losing its top runner to graduation.
"Not a terribly disappointing day, but not a great day," Starkey said of the state meet held Nov. 4 at National Trail Raceway. "We have a lot of sophomores and we will be coming back. This was a learning experience for some of these guys. Some of them had a deer-in-the-headlights look at the beginning. Some of them are getting a taste of what it's like at the next level."
Senior Ashwin Briggs placed 14th (15 minutes, 56.4 seconds) of 183 runners to lead the Panthers, who scored 244 points to place ninth behind champion Hudson (73) as 20 teams scored.
Also scoring for North were sophomores Matt Duvall (23rd, 16:03.5) and Harper Moore (44th, 16:19.9), junior Jake Prestileo (115th, 17:03.1) and sophomore Spencer Moledor (167th, 17:49.8). Seniors Nate Rini and Kevin Mason finished 173rd (17:58.7) and 178th (18:19.4), respectively.
Among area teams, only runner-up Hilliard Davidson (143) finished better than the Panthers, who were 10th in the final state poll.
"I felt a ton better this week," said Briggs, who competed at regional with a bone bruise in his left knee. "I got a nice little rest and I guess I was just able to run my best race ever when it counted. After regionals, my knee started feeling better, so I ran with the team all week. I was able to get right back into it and get ready for state.
"Last year, I didn't do so good (at state, finishing 51st), so I wanted to show everyone who I am. This was fun to come back this year and prove myself."
Duvall finished 79th at state as a freshman.
"I had a couple stumbles early, but everybody pretty much settled down in the second mile. I tried to run with Ashwin, but he had a really good race," Duvall said. "The front pack started to lose us at about 1 1/2 miles. I got tired late, but I tried to run with the people who were in front of me."
The state meet capped a season in which the Panthers won their first OCC-Ohio championship since 2013, scoring 36 points in the league meet Oct. 14 at Lancaster to finish ahead of Lancaster (48), Pickerington Central (69), Gahanna (88), Grove City (151) and Reynoldsburg (166).
North kept up its winning ways the next weekend, winning the district 2 meet Oct. 21 at Watkins Memorial with 56 points, finishing ahead of runner-up Central (67) as 17 teams scored.
At regional, the Panthers finished fourth (135) behind champion Davidson (91) as 16 teams scored. The top five teams and top 20 runners advanced to state.
"This year was really special," Duvall said. "It's tough to put it into words."
With a lineup consisting almost entirely of underclassmen, the girls team did not advance beyond district.
The Panthers placed fifth (118) at the league meet, behind Gahanna (26), Lancaster (47), Central (92) and Reynoldsburg (106) and ahead of Grove City (149).
North then finished sixth (178) in the district 1 meet, one spot shy of a regional berth, behind champion Olentangy Liberty (42) as 11 teams scored.
The only senior in the Panthers' top seven at season's end was Skylar Briggs. The rest of the lineup consisted of sophomores Brianna Bowden and Allie Westall and freshmen Emily Harness, Annabel Malone and Elizabeth Martin.
Girls soccer team falls to Celtics
The girls soccer team momentarily thought it had won a Division I regional semifinal in dramatic fashion, only to see its season end minutes later.
Junior forward Alicia Donley's goal against Dublin Jerome on Oct. 31 at Olentangy was ruled to have been scored after regulation expired, and the Celtics' Riley Mullady nailed a 15-yard shot 50 seconds into overtime for a 4-3 win.
North finished 17-2-1 overall, with both of its losses coming to Jerome. The other was in its regular-season finale, 3-1 on Oct. 12.
"That happens. It was unlucky," coach Greg Van Kannel said. "Between us and them, we both have so much firepower that we knew it was going to be a crazy game. ...
"It was a great year. We played great all season. We only lost two games to the same team, and I thought we competed much better (on Oct. 31) than the first time. The ball just did not bounce our way."
The game had just one goal through its first 49:56 before four were scored in a span of 20:07.
Donley gave North a 1-0 lead halfway through the first half. Freshman forward Tori Haggit tied the score at 2 with 21:21 to go in the second half, and senior forward Makenzie Kelly scored to tie it at 3 with 9:57 left.
"I actually thought we would go to penalty kicks," Jerome coach Kelly Brothers said. "North always puts up a good fight. We like to play them and we hate to play them all at the same time."
Donley, a University of Tennessee commit, scored a team-high 26 goals and was named Player of the Year in both the OCC-Ohio and district. Kelly had 17 goals and was first-team all-league and second-team all-district.
Senior defender Kelsey Haas and junior midfielder Camryn Dees also were first-team all-league. Senior defender Laini Warns, junior forward Avery Hart, junior midfielder Aleece Lukacsko and sophomore defender Haley Moore were second-team all-league, senior midfielder Lauren Dragich was special mention all-league and junior goalkeeper Grace Kenyon was honorable mention all-league.
Hart added nine goals. Haggit scored six, including the game-winner in the district final as the top-seeded Panthers defeated 10th-seeded Canal Winchester 2-1 on Oct. 28 at Hartley.
North went 4-0-1 to win the league championship, ahead of Gahanna (3-0-2), Grove City (3-1-1), Central (1-4), Lancaster (1-4) and Reynoldsburg (1-4).
The Panthers took a first-round bye in the 42-team district tournament and defeated 34th-seeded Teays Valley 7-0 in the second round Oct. 19 and 20th-seeded Dublin Scioto 5-0 in a semifinal Oct. 24.