It took a few weeks, but the Pickerington High School North baseball team finally feels like it's finding its identity.
As far as coach Tim Thomas is concerned, even a 7-1 loss at Grove City on April 21 that snapped a four-game winning streak within the OCC-Ohio Division showed how the Panthers have progressed with only two seniors and a handful of younger contributors.
"We had one bad inning (a four-run second) and we just can't give up those crooked innings. Other than that, it was a run here and a run there and we hung with them," Thomas said. "We have gone through the last few weeks not doing that, but (Grove City) is probably one of the top teams in the state. They are experienced. They are solid all around.
"But overall, we are getting there."
North has shown improvement since a 1-7 start, winning five of its next nine games. That stretch included OCC-Ohio wins over Lancaster (6-0 on April 12), Gahanna (3-2 on April 13) and Reynoldsburg (4-3 on April 17 and 6-3 on April 19) as well as an 8-2 win over Worthington Kilbourne on April 22.
The Panthers were 6-11 overall and 4-6 in the league before playing Pickerington Central on April 26.
The one-run win over Reynoldsburg was a walkoff, and senior Dillan Smith pointed to that as a key moment for the team.
"We saw then that when we work as a team and make plays, we feed off each other and it helps us keep rolling," Smith said. "We are not the type of the team that is going to hit the ball 400 feet. We just have to play small ball and make the right plays. It worked a lot (last) week, but (against Grove City) we tended to overswing. We didn't want to put the ball in play and move guys over; we tried to hit the game-saving home run."
North entered the week without a home run, instead relying on station-to-station baseball. Seventy-seven of its 101 hits as a team through 16 games were singles, and three of the Panthers' top five hitters were underclassmen or first-year varsity players, or both.
Sophomore Drew Salinas, who started on last year's Division I state championship team, led the team in batting average (.432) and hits (19). Sophomore Cam Jenkins was second in hits (12) and was batting .235, and Smith (.333) had 11 hits. Sophomore Brock Vinci (.297) and junior Thomas Townsend (.256) had 11 and 10 hits, respectively.
Vinci also has been one of North's most reliable pitchers. Through 15 games, he was 2-1 with a 3.87 ERA, four walks and three strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings.
Junior Mitchell Smith, an Ohio State recruit, was 1-1 on the mound with a 1.73 ERA, 29 strikeouts and nine walks in 24 1/3 innings.
"They started off timid to make that play, timid to make that pitch, but they were starting to step into their roles," Dillan Smith said. "(Senior catcher) Alec (Bradbury) and I have been trying to help them along and coach them up and see what they need. When you see them start to make plays, you have to stay right there with them and keep them upbeat."
Thomas was quick to caution that even with some recent success, the maturation process is ongoing. The Panthers' April 24 game against Grove City was the first of seven league contests in a 10-game stretch, and two of their non-league games are against Olentangy in a Saturday, April 29, doubleheader.
Olentangy was 14-3 before April 26.
"The speed of the game is different for a lot of them, and when you play in the league we play in, you cannot be a half-step behind," Thomas said. "It is hard to learn the game when you are playing top competition every single night. That is new to our kids."
Boys tennis team
posts winning streak
The boys tennis team hit its stride after an 0-3 start, reeling off six consecutive wins and eight in nine matches before playing Hilliard Bradley on April 25.
The Panthers entered that match at 8-4 overall and are 4-0 in the OCC-Ohio. They will visit Gahanna, which entered the week at 3-0 in the league, on Monday, May 1.
Coach Brian Hoff attributed North's success not only to better fundamentals, but also doubles teams he said work well together. Hoff has juggled the doubles lineup, but doubles players have included Balakrishna Brahmandam, Christian Keen, Ben Marrison, Evan Ross, Grant Schroeder, Peter Vanderhoff and Vamsi Vanguri.
Schroeder and Vanderhoff also have split time at first singles.
"The guys are definitely playing better now," Hoff said. "We found some doubles teams that work well together, and they are playing better and getting more practice with each other. They are making fewer mistakes (and are) more dedicated and determined than we were in the beginning of the season. Our early schedule was also very tough."
Included in North's winning streak, which ended with a 5-0 loss to Dublin Jerome on April 19, were league victories over Pickerington Central (5-0 on April 12), Lancaster (4-1 on April 13), Grove City (5-0 on April 20) and Reynoldsburg (5-0 on April 21).
North also is awaiting its next opponent in the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association Division I district tournament. The Panthers, who defeated Columbus West 5-0 in a second-round match April 8, will play Olentangy Orange, Reynoldsburg or Upper Arlington in a quarterfinal on a date to be determined.
North will play the rest of the season under the leadership of junior varsity coach Evan Carr, as Hoff underwent surgery earlier this week and will not return to the team. Carr is a 2005 North graduate who played for Hoff in the team's first two seasons.
Hoff's final match was April 21 when the Panthers played Reynoldsburg.
Harr's strong weekend
paces girls track team
On the first of three consecutive weekends in which the track and field teams will split their squads, Mallory Harr of the girls team was the program's top performer.
Harr won both the 100-meter hurdles (14.97 seconds) and 300 hurdles (46.14) in the Wildcat Invitational on April 21 at Westerville South. Those performances led North to 43.5 points and a fifth-place tie with Logan in the 11-team meet, behind champion Mason (149.5).
Jessie Kinder was third in the pole vault (9 feet, 6 inches).
Led by fourth-place finishes from Brandon Arnett in the pole vault (11-0) and Tyrik Carter in the 300 hurdles (41.56), the boys finished 11th (17.5) in the Wildcat Invitational, behind champion Mason (146).
That same day, other Panthers competed in the 17-team Fulton Relays at Lancaster. The boys finished 11th (26) behind champion Lancaster (87.5), and the girls were 14th (12) behind champion Hilliard Darby (87.5).
On Friday, April 28, the Panthers will compete in both the Milt Will Relays at Canal Winchester and the Olentangy Invitational. On May 5, they will split between the Hilliard Bradley Invitational and Upper Arlington's Larkin-Crosten Invitational.