After enduring back-to-back losses in mid-December to fall to 3-5, the Gahanna Lincoln High School girls basketball team was nowhere near the level it eventually would reach this winter.
The Lions went on to win 16 of their next 18, including avenging a pair of regular-season losses to Reynoldsburg with a 54-52 overtime win March 3 in a Division I district final at Ohio Dominican before falling to Pickerington Central 58-44 on March 6 in a regional semifinal at Otterbein.
Gahanna went 19-8 overall and won its first district championship under second-year coach Betsy Baker after losing in a district final last season.
"This team was 3-5 on Dec. 19 and so we came in (to the regional semifinal at) 19-7, which is a 16-2 turnaround in two-and-a-half months," Baker said.
The Lions, who also fell to Central 59-53 on Dec. 5 and 75-68 on Jan. 13, lost six of their games to teams that played in district finals.
In the regional semifinal, senior wing player Anisja Harris led with 16 points. The Lions, who were within seven points heading into the fourth quarter, ended up getting outrebounded 47-27.
In her only season with the program after transferring from Westerville North, Harris averaged 15.5 points and was first-team all-OCC-Ohio Division and second-team all-district. She has committed to Wright State.
The only other seniors were forwards A'mya Bess and Addie Kittel.
"We were lucky to have (Harris) for the year we had her," Baker said. "Addie and A'mya have been four-year program players and we're going to miss them day in, day out for their leadership and practice efforts."
Also in the district tournament, ninth-seeded Gahanna beat 41st-seeded Central Crossing 78-22 on Feb. 17 and 26th-seeded Hilliard Darby 79-61 on Feb. 23 in home games before edging eighth-seeded Hartley 56-53 on Feb. 28 in a semifinal at Pickerington North.
Two Lions expected to return -- sophomore guards Edyn Battle and Morgan Darnell -- were among those who shined in the district final.
"(Darnell) makes a difference," Reynoldsburg coach Jack Purtell said. "She's pretty fast and is a good player. ... (Battle) is a really good player."
Battle scored 29 points in the tournament win over Reynoldsburg and was Gahanna's second-leading scorer, averaging 13 points. She joined Harris as first-team all-league.
Darnell averaged nine points and was second-team all-league, and Battle and Darnell both were honorable mention all-district.
Junior guard Madison Hensley averaged 7.5 points and was honorable mention all-league.
Others eligible to return include sophomore guard Kennadi Harris, who averaged six points, as well as juniors Zoie Amey (center) and Breyanna Bess (forward), sophomore Kyla Smith (forward) and freshman Naomi Johnson (forward).
Gahanna finished third (5-5) in the OCC-Ohio behind co-champions Central and Reynoldsburg (9-1) and ahead of Lancaster (3-7), Pickerington North (3-7) and Grove City (1-9).
The junior varsity team went 21-1.
"We have a lot of kids that can be really special," Baker said. "We've got to get stronger. ... We've got the ability to pressure and be really fast."
Boys season ends in district semi
The boys basketball team also had its season end with a third loss to Pickerington Central.
After falling to the Tigers 72-56 on Jan. 29 and 79-60 on Feb. 16, the Lions' game plan for the rematch March 7 in a Division I district semifinal at Watkins Memorial centered on slowing the pace and mixing in a zone defense.
The game ended up being closer, but seventh-seeded Gahanna lost to ninth-seeded and eventual district champion Central 51-41 to finish 17-8 overall.
"Our guys did a great job of executing and controlling the game," coach Tony Staib said. "Basically it was a two-point game and I don't think we scored for about the last 2 minutes, 45 seconds."
The Lions won two more games than a season ago when they also made it to a district semifinal.
Gahanna opened the postseason with home wins over 38th-seeded Big Walnut (77-55 on Feb. 24) and 41st-seeded Briggs (86-49 on March 2).
The Lions lose a seven-member senior class that was led by guards Chase Rankin and David Miller, wing players Cameren Carlisle and Nate Ward and post player Mike Reeves.
Rankin averaged 11.5 points and was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district. Reeves averaged eight points and was honorable mention all-league, and Ward (8 ppg), Carlisle (6 ppg) and Miller (5.5 ppg) also were regulars.
The Lions tied Reynoldsburg for third (5-5) in the OCC-Ohio behind Pickerington North (9-1) and Central (8-2) and ahead of Grove City (3-7) and Lancaster (0-10).
"We finished third in the OCC, and this was the 12th year in a row we've made it to at least a district semifinal," Staib said. "I'm very proud of our guys."
Juniors guards Josh Corbin and Elijah Thomas and sophomore forward Jaiden Davis should be the top returnees.
Corbin averaged 12 points and was first-team all-league and second-team all-district. Thomas averaged a team-high 13 points and was special mention all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Davis averaged four points.
Others who saw action included sophomore guards Kylin Byrd, Phillip Pontious, Nate Staib and Travis Whittaker.
"(Corbin and Thomas) are two of the best shooting guards in central Ohio," coach Staib said. "As a sophomore, Jaiden Davis got a lot of experience, so he'll be ready to step in and fill a big role. Our (junior varsity) went 17-5 and our freshmen were 21-1. We have a lot of good young players to evaluate."
Salazar caps season at state tourney
Junior Cristian Salazar ended his wrestling season by competing in the Division I state tournament for the first time.
On March 8 at Ohio State, Salazar was pinned in his opening match at 113 pounds by Cincinnati La Salle's Lucas Byrd in 2:56 and then fell to Toledo Whitmer's Jack Haskin 5-0 in the first round of consolation to finish 27-13.
Byrd went on to win the state title.
"He wrestled the kid who is ranked fifth in the country," coach Steve Sommer said. "He didn't go out and lay down out there. In his second match, it was 3-0 late in the match, but from a competition standpoint, he competed well."
Salazar should be the top returnee for a Lions team that tied Grove City and Pickerington Central for second (3-2) in the OCC-Ohio behind Lancaster (5-0) and ahead of Reynoldsburg (1-4) and Pickerington North (0-5).
Then in a sectional Feb. 24 at Watkins Memorial, Gahanna was sixth (125.5) of 10 teams behind champion Olentangy (259.5) as five Lions advanced to district.
Last season, Salazar was the Lions' only district qualifier.
Gahanna was 24th (27) in the district tournament March 2 and 3 at Darby behind champion Lancaster (170) as 38 teams scored.
The other district qualifiers were senior Anthony Lawson (145), juniors Nate Garbark (195) and Juan Porras (120) and freshman Charles Williams (106).
Placing fifth at sectional were seniors Adam Grimard (182) and Max Wright (152), junior Major Brown (220) and sophomore Dy'lan Brookings (heavyweight), while junior Luke Garbark (160) and sophomore Brian Walthaw (170) both were sixth.
Others finishing with winning records included Luke Garbark (22-19), Nate Garbark (15-12), Grimard (28-12), Lawson (21-20), Porras (24-17), Williams (21-4) and Wright (16-14).
The other sectional competitor was freshman Marcus Rogers (138).
Junior Jamal Lloyd (126) missed time with an injury but is another whom Sommer is high on.
"I still felt like we were close to getting eight or nine guys (to district)," Sommer said. "I felt like we competed really well and made a lot of progress."
@UlreyThisWeekAt a glance
*Record: 17-8 overall, 5-5 (tied for third) in OCC-Ohio
*Seniors lost: Cameren Carlisle, Seth Goodson, David Miller, Chase Rankin, Mike Reeves, Nate Ward and Carlton Wilkes
*Key returnees: Josh Corbin, Jaiden Davis and Elijah Thomas
*Record: 19-8 overall, 5-5 (third) in OCC-Ohio
*Seniors lost: A'mya Bess, Anisja Harris and Addie Kittel
*Key returnees: Zoie Amey, Edyn Battle, Breyanna Bess, Morgan Darnell, Kennadi Harris and Madison Hensley
*Finishes: Tied for second in OCC-Ohio, sixth at sectional, 24th at district, did not score at state
*Seniors lost: Marcus Fife, Adam Grimard, Anthony Lawson, Landon Whiteman and Max Wright
*Key returnees: Luke Garbark, Nate Garbark, Juan Porras, Cristian Salazar, Brian Walthaw and Charles Williams