Having lost in Division I state semifinals each of the past two years, the Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team has doubled down on its usual belief in being led by solid defense.

Several players seemed to buy in to that approach during the preseason, but one in particular seems to be leading the way.

"Me," senior center Coleton Landis said, smiling. "I'm trying to be the man on defense (as far as) talking, calling everything out and not letting anything slide. The coaches emphasized what we had to do to get (the state championship) and a huge part of that is being strong on the defensive end.

"Our defense is what's been the difference so far. We are energetic on the defensive end, talking a lot and working well together."

The Tigers opened Dec. 1 with a 64-46 win over Springfield in the All-Ohio Nike Hoops Showcase at Pickerington North. They went 18-9 overall last season, riding an 11-game winning streak to the state tournament before losing to Solon 82-78.

Six-foot-3 senior guard Jahvon Garcia hopes to build on a solid junior season in which he averaged 12.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Garcia, who will be the Tigers' primary point guard, decommitted from Miami University in mid-November.

The 6-7 Landis averaged 8.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists last year.

According to Garcia, who will split point-guard duties with 6-2 senior Jay Rodgers and 6-2 junior Tahleik Walker, long-range shooting is another of the Tigers' strengths.

Rodgers had 21 points and Garcia scored 14 against Springfield.

"We can shoot the 3 (-pointer) really well," Garcia said. "I really worked on 3-point shooting, moving off the ball and getting open. I wanted to expand my range and my game overall.

"It's been pretty smooth so far. I have to make sure I lead us in everything we do -- stretching, practice, our work on the ball, things after the game, everything. Everything counts."

Fifth-year coach Eric Krueger has been impressed with his team's balance and passing.

"That goes back to the chemistry and unselfishness," Krueger said. "Guys are moving the ball well. We were balanced in our scrimmages. Obviously, Garcia is an elite guy for us and so is Coleton Landis, guys who know what it takes to win at the varsity level. Nobody scored 35 points in scrimmages. Everybody shared the ball and anybody can shoot it well."

Rounding out the roster are seniors Juddah Bates (6-3, guard/forward), Jalen Cromwell (6-3, guard/forward), Jalen Foreman (6-1, guard), Jeremiah Francis (6-2, guard), Antonio Green (6-1, guard), Avonte Jones (5-11, guard), Jaidon Lipscomb (6-1, guard) and Sam Towns (6-8, forward), juniors Zakai Alexander (6-3, forward), Connor Maciag (6-2, guard) and Elhadji Thiam (6-7, forward) and sophomore Garner Wallace (6-5, guard/forward).

Rodgers and Towns originally are from Pickerington but played the past two seasons at Springfield.

Francis, a North Carolina recruit, will miss the entire season as he continues to recover from left knee surgery last year. The injury also cost him his entire junior season and required a follow-up procedure in August.

Central has its first four games on the road, including its OCC-Ohio Division opener Friday, Dec. 7, at Pickerington North, before its home opener Dec. 14 against Lancaster. The Tigers went 8-2 in the league last year to finish second behind the Panthers (9-1).

Branson returns to pace wrestling team

Wrestling coach Jason Allen called his lineup "fairly well set," but with a catch.

Several competitors who helped the football team to the Division I, Region 3 championship likely will not see much action until early January, but Allen is confident that returning state qualifier Bo Branson and three other district qualifiers will anchor the team all season.

Branson, a junior who went 37-10 at 106 pounds last season and dropped both of his state tournament matches, has bumped up to 120 this year.

"We've seen a tremendous amount of growth with him off the mat as far as his work ethic in the weight room. He's made great gains and he's kept his strength up with his weight," said Allen, whose 10th season opens Saturday, Dec. 8, with the Dan Gartner Duals at Whitehall. "We just got the football guys back (last week) and they're trying to get into wrestling shape. It'll be awhile before we see our full varsity team. It'll be until about January until we get everybody in."

Other returning district qualifiers are seniors Trevor Mangahas (126) and Silas Pearson (182) and junior Marcus Zullo (152). Pearson is one of eight football players on the team, along with seniors Jerimi Freeman (145) and Keaton Middendorf (145), juniors Sawyer Brancifort (160/170) and Noor El-Barrad (220) and sophomores Cameron Griffith (220), Garrett Meek (heavyweight) and Keith Moton (170).

Zullo went 33-8 last year.

Rounding out the roster are seniors Alex Epps (195), Jamal Lloyd (113) and Carter Wade (132/138), juniors Matt Gonzales (heavyweight), Dae'vion Hargrow (160) and Holden Walters (132/138), sophomores Blake Benson (132/138) and Gary Gall (220) and freshmen Kaleb Mangahas (106) and Jarred Upperman (113).

"We look solid. We have a lot of options to bump people around now," Allen said. "We'll have to see who bumps down or stays the same as the year progresses. We have that luxury this year to see what we want to do. It's more in the past because we have more depth and, when I say more depth, it's (about having) more experienced guys who have paid their dues. I feel comfortable putting them on the mat at the varsity level."

Central begins OCC-Ohio competition Jan. 10 at Gahanna against Reynoldsburg and the host Lions. The Tigers went 3-2 in the league last year to tie Gahanna and Grove City for second place behind Lancaster (5-0).

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave

Schedules

BOYS BASKETBALL

Dec. 1 -- Springfield in All-Ohio Nike Hoops Showcase at Pickerington North

Dec. 4 -- at Dayton Thurgood Marshall

*Dec. 7 -- at Pickerington North

*Dec. 14 -- vs. Lancaster

Dec. 18 -- vs. Groveport

*Dec. 21 -- at Reynoldsburg

Dec. 28 -- Williamston (Mich.) in Motor City Roundball Classic at Ferndale (Mich.)

Dec. 29 -- Warren (Mich.) Lincoln in Motor City Roundball Classic

*Jan. 4 -- vs. Grove City

Jan. 8 -- at Westerville South

*Jan. 11 -- at Gahanna

Jan. 12 -- at Eastmoor Academy

*Jan. 18 -- vs. Pickerington North

Jan. 21 -- Trotwood-Madison in Flyin' to the Hoop at Kettering Fairmont

Jan. 22 -- vs. Westerville Central

*Jan. 25 -- at Lancaster

Jan. 26 -- vs. Garfield Heights in Jared Sullinger Ohio Scholastic Play-by-Play Classic at home

*Feb. 1 -- vs. Reynoldsburg

Feb. 5 -- vs. New Albany

*Feb. 8 -- at Grove City

Feb. 9 -- vs. Newark

*Feb. 15 -- vs. Gahanna

WRESTLING

Dec. 8 -- Dan Gartner Duals at Whitehall

Dec. 14-15 -- Liberty Classic at Olentangy Liberty

Dec. 27-28 -- Greater Miami Valley Wrestling Association Invitational Tournament at Vandalia Butler

Jan. 5 -- Kevin Cleveland Invitational at Dublin Scioto

*Jan. 10 -- at Gahanna with Reynoldsburg

Jan. 12 -- Porter Memorial Tournament at Hilliard Bradley

Jan. 19 -- Panther Invitational at Pickerington North

*Jan. 24 -- vs. Grove City and Lancaster

Jan. 26 -- Washington Court House Bracket Tournament

*Feb. 7 -- at Pickerington North

Feb. 9 -- All-North Invitational at Dublin Jerome

*League contest

Below are the coming schedules for the Central girls basketball, bowling and swimming & diving teams:

GIRLS BASKETBALL

*Dec. 7 -- At Pickerington North

BOWLING

*Dec. 6 -- Gahanna at Rule 3

*Dec. 11 -- Lancaster at Tiki Bowling Lanes

*Dec. 12 -- Pickerington North at Rule 3

SWIMMING & DIVING

Dec. 7-8 -- Ned Reeb Memorial Invitational at Ohio State

*League contest