With six of its top seven players returning from a season in which it went 16-2 overall and was unbeaten in league play to win the OCC-Ohio Division championship, expectations are high for the Pickerington High School Central girls tennis team.

With six of its top seven players returning from a season in which it went 16-2 overall and was unbeaten in league play to win the OCC-Ohio Division championship, expectations are high for the Pickerington High School Central girls tennis team.

"Certainly last year was a very positive season because we had a great record, were state-ranked and won a league championship," 14th-year coach Kelli Rings said. "But I think they're hungry and motivated to be even better because we didn't reach one of our goals of qualifying some girls to the state tournament.

"We expect that this season. We have high expectations for a good reason. We have some very talented girls."

Junior Nithya Raya and sophomore Kyah Thomas return and continue to battle for the top two singles spots. Senior Allyna Fischbach and sophomore Nikkia Thompson still are competing for the third-singles position and a spot on the first-doubles team.

"Raya and Thomas are both very competitive and both are strong and capable of being No. 1 singles (players)," said Rings, whose team opened by beating host Hudson 5-0 on Aug. 15. "Kyah brings an offense and the heat, and Nithya thinks about her shots and sets them up well. They've got different games, but they keep beating one another in challenge matches. ... I don't expect to lose the top two singles matches on the same day all season.

"Allyna and Nikkia also have a close competition going. Thompson put in a lot of work in the offseason and improved tremendously. She's going from j.v. to possibly a varsity singles position. She's got a great work ethic and is a great addition to the team."

Also returning are junior Peyton Klein and sophomore Madi Schott, who could be paired in doubles. Junior Audrey Covert appears to be the early choice to join Fischbach or Thompson on the other doubles court.

Also vying for playing time are senior Taylor Williams, junior Kaitlin Nieman and sophomore Patricia Ladipo.

Raya joined 2012 graduate Sarah Gordon to play doubles in the postseason and qualified for the Division I district tournament at Hilliard Davidson, as did the other doubles team of Thomas and Klein.

Raya and Gordon lost in the first round 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 to Megan Letizia and Amber Lee of Dublin Coffman. Thomas and Klein won 6-2, 6-3 over New Albany's Kylie Hess and Alyssa Seneviratne before losing to Upper Arlington's Elaine Cloern and Audrey Berger 6-3, 6-3 in the second round.

The Tigers finished second (24) in the Columbus School for Girls Invitational on Aug. 18 behind winner Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown (25) and opened league play Aug. 21 against Lancaster.

Last season, Central won the league title with 75 points and a 7-0 record in duals. Pickerington North (47, 5-2), Lancaster (43, 4-3), Gahanna (39, 5-2), Reynoldsburg (33, 4-3), Newark (15, 2-5), Grove City (11, 1-6) and Groveport (6, 0-7) followed.

Panthers' lineup in flux early on

North returns all but one player from last season, when it finished 9-5 overall and placed second in the OCC-Ohio.

The Panthers lost their first two league matches before winning five in a row.

Despite the amount of returnees, 10th-year coach Brian Hoff said the lineup will be in flux early in the season.

"Right now, the lineup is completely up in the air," he said. "There is a tremendous amount of parity in this group, the most I've ever seen in all my years of coaching. On any given day, four or five different girls could be the best player on the team. During tryouts and practice, they keep beating each other.

"I am hoping that a couple of the girls will step up their game and distinguish themselves from the pack and lay claim to the top singles spots. When that happens, the rest of the lineup should take shape."

Seniors Melody Liu and Kelsie Weinstein lead the returnees. Also back are junior Rachel Sorensen and sophomores Rachel Brady, Shaili Kothari and Emily Robinson.

Newcomers are sophomores Maddie Schroeder and Noelle Wilson.

Last season, Liu teamed with her sister, 2012 graduate Siyu Liu, in the postseason. Weinstein and Sorensen also played doubles. Brady, Robinson and Kothari all played singles.

None of the Panthers won a Division I sectional match.

"We have a very deep team and should be very strong in the middle of the lineup -- especially third singles and first doubles," said Hoff, whose team lost to DeSales 3-2 in the opener Aug. 16 and played Newark in the league opener Aug. 21. "We need some girls to step up into those top two singles positions and become competitive with the top players in the area.

"We are still trying to find the right combinations for doubles, and that certainly will depend on who ends up playing singles. Emily and Shaili have been playing well together, as have Kelsie and Rachel Sorensen."

Against DeSales, Weinstein played first singles, with Sorensen at No. 2 and Brady at No. 3. In doubles, Robinson and Kothari played first doubles with the other pairing being Wilson and Schroeder. Brady won in singles and Robinson and Kothari won in doubles.