The Pickerington High School North football team didn't have to look hard to find motivation heading into this season.

The Pickerington High School North football team didn't have to look hard to find motivation heading into this season.

After their quarterback was among seven players who transferred from the program during the offseason following a 5-5 finish last fall, the Panthers won their first four games and six of their first seven to move into contention for the OCC-Ohio Division championship and a Division I, Region 3 playoff berth.

A 17-14 loss at Pickerington Central on Oct. 14 and a 26-7 loss at home to Lancaster on Oct. 21 kept the Panthers from winning the league title, but a 28-21 overtime win at Gahanna on Oct. 27 sent them to the postseason for the fourth time.

Seventh-seeded North upset second-seeded Hilliard Bradley 49-21 in the first round Nov. 4 before falling to third-seeded Central 38-24 in a regional semifinal Nov. 11 at Gahanna to finish 8-4 overall.

"It meant something special to us because everyone doubted us, saying we would go 4-6 and not make the playoffs, but we made the playoffs and we went to the second round," said junior wide receiver and defensive back Nick Giardina, who was named special mention all-district and first-team all-league. "We all looked out for each other. Our goal next season is to build on what we accomplished this year and to make it further in the playoffs."

Against Central, North battled back from deficits of 17-0 and 24-6 to make it 31-24 with 6 minutes, 30 seconds remaining, but the Tigers scored with 2:43 left to seal the victory and move to 9-3 all-time in the series.

The Panthers went 3-2 in the OCC-Ohio to place third, behind Central (5-0) and Lancaster (4-1) and ahead of Reynoldsburg (2-3), Gahanna (1-4) and Grove City (0-5).

North is losing 17 seniors, including first-team all-league and all-district wide receiver Connor Gessells, second-team all-league running back and linebacker Noah Owens, special mention all-district linebacker Morgan Conkel and second-team all-league running back A'sonte' Clay.

Gessells closed the season with a program-record 74 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Owens rushed for 431 yards and 10 touchdowns and added a receiving score.

Conkel finished with 89 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks and Clay was the leading rusher with 535 yards and scored seven touchdowns on 98 carries.

Tyler Potts (DB), Jimmy Weirick (QB) and Ty Wiley (WR) all made second-team all-district and join Giardina as key members of a strong junior class.

Weirick was 170-for-315 passing for 2,827 yards with 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions and rushed for 364 yards and seven touchdowns and shared OCC-Ohio Player of the Year honors with Central's Darius Coker. Weirick missed most of last season with an injury but earned the starting job this season after last year's starter, Michael Lowery, transferred to Gahanna for his sophomore year.

Wiley had 47 catches for 946 yards and eight touchdowns, Potts had eight pass breakups and four interceptions and Giardina led the team in tackles with 113 and had 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.

Potts was first-team all-league and Wiley made the second team.

Also eligible to return from the receiving corps are junior Tyrik Carter (20 catches for 356 yards, 1 TD) and sophomore Jaylon Baylor (15 catches for 297 yards, 1 TD).

Junior Devin Snyder should be the top offensive lineman returning next year after making special mention all-district and second-team all-league.

Others eligible to return on defense include juniors Elijah Davis (DB, 58 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss), Que Davis (DB, 61 tackles, 4 pass breakups) and Ben Johnson (LB, 53 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss) and sophomore Larry Martin (LB, 42 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss).

Que Davis was special mention all-league and Elijah Davis was honorable mention.

North will be looking for a new kicker and punter to replace senior Kendall Marcum, who made 45 extra points and two field goals and averaged 34.9 yards per punt with nine going inside the 20.

"I saw the predictions at the beginning of the year," Phillips said. "I saw 2-8, I saw 4-6, and we put up eight wins and went to the second round (of the playoffs). I'm very proud of these kids. We lose one senior lineman, a running back and a receiver, so we graduate three on offense and we're returning seven guys (on defense) as well. We're excited about our seniors-to-be and that class."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek