The Pickerington High School North boys basketball team began the postseason by playing the 44th- and 48th-seeded teams in the 48-team Division I district tournament.
But given that they lost two of their last three regular-season games, the top-seeded Panthers made the past few weeks more about themselves as they continue to defend last year's district championship and try to accomplish more firsts for their program.
"We're focusing on doing what made us who we are," coach Jason Bates said, citing defensive intensity and shot selection. "I've told the guys that the first few rounds is more about your seeding. We had two games where we were heavy favorites and had chances to play a lot of guys. That helped our chemistry, helped us implement some things we've been working on and got to rotate in some guys who don't always get too many minutes. Basically, it was more about us and trying to get better."
North was 20-4 before playing 16th-seeded Mount Vernon in a district semifinal March 7 at Granville.
After consecutive losses to Reynoldsburg (53-52 on Feb. 9) and Dublin Jerome (48-42 on Feb. 13), the Panthers righted their ship with a 79-57 win at Grove City on Feb. 16 to clinch the outright OCC-Ohio Division championship.
Lopsided wins followed against 44th-seeded St. Charles, 59-32 in a first-round home game Feb. 24, and 48th-seeded Columbus West, 71-27 in the second round March 2.
A 25-5 second-quarter run broke open the game against visiting West, and most of the second half was played with a running clock. Jerome Hunter's 17 points led four scorers in double figures.
Jack Sawyer added 14 points, Ty Wiley 13 and Corey Baker 10.
"Our losses helped us as a group. They opened everybody's eyes," Bates said. "The timing of our losses wasn't bad. You never want to lose, but we had that two-week stretch with one game a week so we could all get on the same page.
"The big thing for us was getting on the same page defensively and making better shot selection. Lots of teams would pack into a 2-3 zone against us and it worked to an extent that we weren't necessarily getting the shots we wanted. We went back and dissected things and we've definitely seen improvement."
A win over Mount Vernon would have been North's 21st of the season, tying the mark it set during last year's regional runner-up campaign when it went 21-7 and won the program's first district title.
The North-Mount Vernon winner plays 10th-seeded Reynoldsburg or 11th-seeded Westerville Central in a district final Saturday, March 10, at Ohio Dominican. The district champion faces Chillicothe, Hilliard Bradley, Logan or Westerville South in a regional semifinal Wednesday, March 14, at Ohio Dominican.
The regional final is March 17.
The Panthers defeated Reynoldsburg 48-42 on Jan. 5 before losing the second OCC-Ohio matchup Feb. 9.
Bowlers fall short at district
Making their second consecutive appearance in the Division I district tournament, the girls bowling team improved by nine spots from a year ago but still fell short of making state.
Alana Robinson's 485 three-game series led North, which finished ninth (2,955) of 16 teams on March 3 at HP Lanes behind champion Gahanna (3,596). The top three teams and top three individuals not on qualifying teams advanced to state Saturday, March 10, at Wayne Webb's Columbus Bowl.
Robinson tied for 20th of 102 individuals.
Also scoring for North were Alex Oppenheimer (27th, 485), Liz Arp (30th, 462), Alayah Robinson (tied for 56th, 410) and Lara Martindale (78th, 328).
In the boys district tournament March 3 at HP Lanes, William Hrivnak finished 17th of 105 individuals with a 560 series and missed out on making his third consecutive state appearance. The final individual qualifier, Olentangy Liberty's Daniel Valz, rolled a 596.
The boys state tournament is Friday, March 9, at Wayne Webb's Columbus Bowl.
Wrestling season ends at district
The wrestling team's season came to an end in the Division I district tournament held March 2 and 3 at Hilliard Darby, where junior Elliot Mahaffey and freshman Titus Mahaffey fell short of qualifying for state.
Elliot Mahaffey went 1-2 at 160 pounds and finished the season 28-14. Titus Mahaffey went 0-2 at 106 to finish 14-12.
The top four finishers in each weight class advanced to state Thursday, March 8, through Saturday, March 10, at Ohio State.
North scored two points at district to place 38th behind champion Lancaster (170) as 38 teams scored.
The Panthers expect to return the majority of their lineup next year, as four of their eight competitors in a sectional Feb. 24 at Watkins Memorial were freshmen in Titus Mahaffey, Rajesh Bomjan (113), David Carte (138) and Erik Gomez (106). Other projected returnees include junior Elijah Clarke (145).
North competed in the second half of the season without senior Brandon Hassel because of a meniscus injury.
The Panthers went 0-5 in the OCC-Ohio to finish sixth, behind Lancaster (5-0), Gahanna, Grove City and Pickerington Central (all 3-2) and Reynoldsburg (1-4).
North finished eighth (68) at sectional behind champion Olentangy (259.5) as 10 teams scored.
Elliot Mahaffey and Titus Mahaffey both placed fourth at sectional as the top four finishers in each weight class advanced to district.
The Panthers also are losing their coach, as Jake Kuhner will resign after being named football coach at Watkins Memorial in January. Kuhner coached North for three seasons.
@ThisWeekDaveAt a glance
*Finishes: Sixth in OCC-Ohio, eighth at sectional, 38th at district
*Seniors lost: Brandon Hassel, Atticus Mahaffey, Baylon Watts and Karon Williams
*Key returnees: Rajesh Bomjan, David Carte, Erik Gomez, Elliot Mahaffey and Titus Mahaffey