Another Friday night. Another packed house.
Another Friday night. Another packed house.
It seems the OCC may have stumbled onto something with its latest realignment package.
One year into the latest OCC reorganization, Christmas shopping -- or holiday shopping, if that's what you prefer -- seems to have taken a back seat to good, old-fashioned rivalry basketball for the past two weeks, at least in Westerville and Lewis Center.
On Dec. 11, Westerville North High School's gymnasium was standing-room only as the Warriors boys basketball team defeated Westerville Central 73-53.
Then, last Friday, boys basketball fans packed the gym at Olentangy to see the Braves play Olentangy Liberty.
Ben-Michael Welch drove the lane in overtime for Olentangy as the clock clicked down ever so close to zero. He never took his eye off the basket as he cocked, fired past a Liberty defender and banked the ball off the glass through the net with 2 seconds remaining.
Liberty's Ben Napier was able to launch a three-quarter court prayer that hit glass just left of the rim as the Braves came away with a 59-58 OCC-Cardinal Division victory. Fans from the Olentangy student section swarmed onto the court to celebrate with Welch and his teammates.
"The bigger the crowd, the better we seem to play. That's how it is with this team," said Welch, still gasping for breath nearly 20 minutes after making the decisive shot. "This rivalry just keeps getting bigger and bigger ever year."
Despite winning by 20 points, the student section at Westerville North reacted in the same manner against Central. North's Ralph Hill drove the baseline from the corner for an exclamation dunk as time expired to send fans onto the hardwood like their team had won a state title. The players were excited, but nothing compared to the student body.
"These fans really want something to cheer about and our kids really feed off of them," said North coach Kevin Thuman, whose team was unbeaten in its first four games. "It's really a lot of fun when we play these games."
And by "these games," Thuman refers to the hometown rivalries. The Warriors play on Jan. 5 at Westerville South in the team's other rivalry game in the OCC-Cardinal.
"It's big with Central and it's big with South," Thuman said. "I wouldn't say one is better or bigger than the other. It's just different. Yeah, I'd say they are just different."
For years administrators strayed away from intra-district games as much as possible, fearing passion-fueled unruly behavior from fans. Instead, it seems the kids are having the times of their lives -- whether on the court or cheering with painted faces and torsos in the bleachers.
On Dec. 11, Pickerington North boys basketball fans poured onto the court after the Panthers beat Pickerington Central 58-43 in an OCC-Ohio game. Surely much of that jubilation was carryover from two hard-fought losses of 7-6 and 14-12 to Central during the football season.
Last Friday as the players filed onto the court to begin overtime, Olentangy's Raphael Carter-Nowling -- who could hardly be missed at 6-foot-7 -- began jumping, yelling and beating his chest while facing the Braves' student section.
"I was telling them that we need them to get up and get going," Carter-Nowling said. "It's always a packed house when we play (Liberty), and we wanted to defend our house. I wanted (the student section) to know how much we feed off of them."
And the Braves-Patriots rivalry also runs deep with the coaches. Greg Nossaman is in his second season at Liberty, but has quickly figured out the importance of the game.
"(Olentangy coach) Chris (Kelly) and I are pretty good friends, but when the ball is thrown up, we're enemies," he said. "Then after 32 minutes we're friends again.
"This rivalry was big before the school was even built because these kids went to elementary school or middle school together. They know one another really well."
Kelly almost saw his team's lead dwindle as Liberty sophomore Jake Bischoff had 12 points with all three of his 3-pointers coming in the second half as the Patriots rallied to force overtime.
"His dad, Jeff, went to high school with me," Kelly said with a grin. "We wanted to get him to come over here ... but it didn't work out that way."
That's just another log to toss on the embers of an intra-district rivalry for the next couple of seasons. As if the rivalry needed any boost.