Maddie O'Connell was resigned to the possibility that she might never play another game for the Pickerington High School North girls basketball team.
The 5-foot-9 senior guard lost her entire junior season because of a torn right ACL, and then strained her left MCL and tore the ligament that holds her left kneecap in place before this season. As those injuries healed, O'Connell had to wait for swelling to subside and, consequently, for muscle to come back.
But once she stepped on the floor Jan. 31 against Logan, the long wait seemed worth it.
"It was a great feeling. I definitely cried a lot (when I was cleared) because I was so happy," O'Connell said. "I knew how hard I'd have to work to get back into the flow of the game after being out. Games are definitely not like practices."
Although coach Dave Butcher is steadily increasing O'Connell's minutes, he is basing her playing time largely on her input. At the least, O'Connell provides another ball-handling threat and a tall presence at guard for the Panthers, who are 10-12 overall entering their Division I district tournament opener Saturday, Feb. 17, at home against Hilliard Bradley.
"She's another girl who can handle the ball in any situation," point guard Mickale Bates said. "I can depend on her to bring the ball up and make her own plays. I trust her with the ball. It's a big addition for us. Having her out, it was hard for us to be able to bring the ball up sometimes. She's a huge help with that."
O'Connell was cleared in mid-January. She started against Logan and scored her first points in more than two years on a basket during a 55-44 loss to Canal Winchester on Feb. 2.
O'Connell, who did not score again that game or during a 69-39 loss to Reynoldsburg on Feb. 9, is not concerned with her point total and says she feels fine other than some slight soreness.
"That's normal. I haven't played for a while, so it's going to be sore," said O'Connell, who is wearing a brace to stabilize her left knee. "I don't like (the brace) at all, but (the doctor) won't let me play without it.
"It's been difficult just because of the speed of the game. When I get in the game, nobody is thinking about my leg and trying not to not hurt it. It's mostly mental, getting used to knowing you'll be OK."
Butcher has another injury concern entering the postseason, as senior forward Kyla Sawyer has been experiencing pain in her left knee. She underwent a cartilage transplant in that knee in the summer of 2016 and has had other knee injuries the past few years, but she and Butcher were both unsure entering the week whether this pain is related to those issues.
North is seeded 22nd in the 50-team district tournament, while Bradley is 24th.
"We're seeded right about where I thought we'd be," Butcher said. "Right now, we're just waiting to hear about Kyla. Hopefully, she'll be able to go (this weekend)."
The North-Bradley winner will visit 14th-seeded Big Walnut in a second-round game Feb. 23.
North did not play Bradley during the regular season, but the teams are meeting in the postseason for the second time in three years. The Jaguars defeated the Panthers 36-27 in a second-round game in 2016.
Boys basketball team nearing league title
The boys basketball team still has the inside track to winning its first OCC-Ohio championship since 2011, but the Panthers will need a win Friday, Feb. 16, at Grove City to ensure their fourth league title in program history.
Jerome Hunter scored 19 of his 31 points in the second half Feb. 9 to help rally North from a 10-point deficit against Reynoldsburg, but the Panthers' comeback fell just short in a 53-52 loss. That snapped a 16-game winning streak for North, which was ranked fifth in last week's Division I state poll, and dropped them to 17-3 overall before playing Dublin Jerome on Feb. 13.
The Panthers are 8-1 in the OCC-Ohio, one game ahead of second-place Central (7-2). The Tigers will visit Gahanna on Feb. 16.
North won league titles in 2005 and '06 as a member of the OCC-Capital.
On Feb. 6, the Panthers beat Canal Winchester 75-56 behind 22 points from Hunter, 14 from Ty Wiley and 12 from Ross Ryan.
Despite the loss to Reynoldsburg, North still earned the top seed in the 48-team Division I district tournament. The Panthers will play host to 44th-seeded St. Charles in a first-round game Feb. 24.
"The target just got a little bit bigger," coach Jason Bates said. "It's great for our guys. They've worked hard to get to this point and gain the respect of their peers. It's a big accomplishment for the program, but we know how much work comes along with that."
Kreinbrink leads girls swimmers to district
Eight girls swimmers will lead North into the Division I district meet Saturday, Feb. 17, at Ohio University.
The Panthers will be well-represented in the 100-yard butterfly and 200 individual medley, as they will have four swimmers competing in the former event and three in the latter.
In a sectional Feb. 10 at Upper Arlington, Rylee Kreinbrink won the 100 fly (56.9 seconds) and placed fourth in the 50 freestyle (24.58) to lead the Panthers. Lindsey Keaton was second in the 100 fly (58.54) and sixth in the 100 backstroke (1:01.12).
Also placing second were Kelsey Morgan in both the 100 breaststroke (1:05.27) and 200 IM (2:10.66) and the 200 medley relay (1:51.2).
Team scores were not kept.
Wyatt Ross is the boys team's only district qualifier after finishing ninth at sectional in the 100 breast (1:04.19).
The winner of each sectional event automatically qualified for district. In addition, 27 at-large district berths were awarded in each swimming event based on times from the Central, East and Southeast sectional sites.
At district, the top two placers in each swimming event automatically advance to the state meet Feb. 23 and 24 at Branin Natatorium in Canton. In addition, 16 at-large state berths will be awarded for each swimming event based on times statewide.
Athletes announce college decisions
Nine North student-athletes announced their college decisions Feb. 7.
Jalen Bankston will play football at Urbana, Tyrik Carter will play football at Tiffin, Nick Giardina will play football at Ohio Dominican, Marlyn Hill will play football at Walsh, Makenzie Kelly will play women's soccer at Ashland, Travon Peppers will play football at Cincinnati Christian, Devin Snyder will play football at Ashland, Jimmy Weirick will play football at Wofford and Abbey Wilson will play women's lacrosse at Indiana Institute of Technology.
Below are the coming schedules for the North boys basketball and wrestling teams:
*Feb. 16 -- At Grove City
Feb. 17 -- Nye Cardinal Classic at St. Charles
*League contestAt a glance
Below are the district qualifiers with sectional time and district seeds for the North boys and girls swimming teams:
BOYS -- Wyatt Ross: 100 breast (1:04.19, 28th); 200 free relay (1:36.2, 17th); 200 medley relay (1:44.72, 16th); 400 free relay (3:28.95, 16th)
GIRLS -- Anna Cherryhomes: 100 breast (1:10.57, 17th); Grace Cherryhomes: 50 free (24.98, 18th), 100 fly (59.59, 16th); Gracie Kane: 100 fly (1:00.12, 18th); Lindsey Keaton: 100 back (1:01.12, 17th), 100 fly (58.54, eighth); Rylee Kreinbrink: 50 free (24.58, seventh), 100 fly (56.9, second); Kelsey Morgan: 100 breast (1:05.27, fourth), 200 IM (2:10.66, third); Caroline Ramos: 200 IM (2:17.36, 15th); Regan Turnbull: 100 breast (1:10.35, 16th), 200 IM (2:19.6, 23rd); 200 free relay (1:41.31, eighth); 200 medley relay (1:51.2, seventh); 400 free relay (3:40.56, seventh)