The Pickerington High School North girls basketball team enters its sixth Kroger Holiday Classic after an intense first four weeks of the season.

The Pickerington High School North girls basketball team enters its sixth Kroger Holiday Classic after an intense first four weeks of the season.

According to Dave Butcher, it not only has been the toughest early season schedule the Panthers have had, but it's been the toughest he's experienced in 26 years as a coach.

"We've played pretty solid basketball, but every game we've played, especially in our conference, has been a battle," he said. "It's even tougher than I thought it would be."

Entering its game Dec. 20 at Reynoldsburg, North was 3-1 overall and 2-1 in the OCC-Ohio Division, which also includes such strong teams as Gahanna, Grove City, Pickerington Central and Reynoldsburg.

"Since I've been coaching in the OCC, I haven't seen a stronger division from top to bottom," Butcher said. "The biggest factor early in the year is you have to prepare your team, hang in there and it's something that takes stamina in a long year."

Stamina also is a trait teams need to have in the Kroger Classic.

North finished runner-up last season after losing to West Chester Lakota West 56-45 in the final. The Panthers went on to finish 21-4 overall after losing to Dublin Coffman 61-43 in a Division I regional semifinal. North beat Dresden Tri-Valley 55-45 for Butcher's 20th consecutive district title.

North returned eight letterwinners, led by senior guards Britt-ney Callahan (5-foot-8), and Brittany Gamby (5-7) and junior guard Nicole Olszewski (5-6).

On Nov. 14, Callahan signed a letter of intent with Northern Illinois and Gamby signed with the North Carolina-Wilmington. Through four games this year Callahan led North at 13.3 followed by Gamby (10.5) and Olszewski (9.3).

"I'm in a good groove shooting-wise," Gamby said. "I need to work on my shot off the dribble."

Callahan has moved from point guard to shooting guard, her more natural position, and Olszewski has developed into the starting point guard.

"Nicole is a natural point guard," Callahan said.

North lost eight graduates, including frontcourt players Kelsey Price and Ashlen Stayrook as well as guard Jordan Smithberger. This season, guards are plentiful throughout the roster and the frontcourt does not have impressive size.

Senior Jen Rennel (6-0 center) started in all 25 games last season and has returned. Through four games, she was averaging 6.5 points. Tianni Kelly (5-10 guard/forward) and Kavuna Edwards (5-11 forward) provide North some depth in the frontcourt.

Since North is guard-oriented, Butcher is concerned about his team's shot selection. In a 69-67 loss to Central on Dec. 12, the guard play was not to his liking. Turnovers, poor shooting from the field and free throw line (16-for-29) led to North's first loss after opening 3-0.

"I'm always worried about shot selection and it's something we'll learn as the season goes on," Butcher said. "We've got put in some special situations where we can get people free. It's hard for use because we're not creating a lot of situations where teams have to double or triple team a post player.

"The kids have to work for their shots and execute our offense."