Seniors Jared Ball and Jacob Cover are expected to lead the Hilliard Darby High School wrestling team this season while chasing their dreams of winning a Division I state championship.
Ball placed third at 182 pounds at state last season to finish 54-3 overall. Ball, who placed third at 160 as a sophomore, will compete at 195 or 220 this season.
Cover went 0-2 at 220 at state a year ago and finished 37-12, but is bumping up to heavyweight.
"We look for those two to lead our team on the mat, but also to show our younger kids how to prepare off the mat in order to be successful," ninth-year coach Brendan Moody said. "Jacob and Jared have been leading by example in the practice room and that's very important."
Both competed in the Ironman tournament Dec. 8 and 9 at Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit.
Ball, who finished third in the event last year, won his first match at 195 but lost by medical default in his second match and by injury default in his third match. Cover went 4-2 in the event and placed seventh.
"With Cover being at heavyweight, that allows us to use Ball at 195 or 220 and also allows us to use (junior) Rodney Beneker at 182 or 195," Moody said.
Beneker was a sectional placer at 170.
The Panthers had six state qualifiers last season and totaled 25.5 points at state to tie Aurora for 17th behind champion Lakewood St. Edward (151). State qualifiers Tai Bloch (138), Mo Debyan (heavyweight), Austin Rayburn (152) and Quentin Thatcher (160) were among the team's eight 2017 graduates.
All six state qualifiers won sectional titles as the Panthers finished first (225.5) ahead of host Watkins Memorial (206). Ball won a district title and Cover placed fourth at district as Darby finished second (124.5) behind Olentangy Liberty (236.5).
Four other district qualifiers have returned in junior Ben Brown (132) and sophomores Ryan Blackerby (120), Evan Grose (126) and Caiden Rayburn (152). Last season, Brown went 32-16 at 113, Grose was 32-18 at 106, Blackerby was 4-8 at 120 and Rayburn was 19-22 at 145.
"The experience that Ryan Blackerby, Evan Grose and Ben Brown had last year will be vital to their success this season, as well as showing the new guys how to compete throughout the season," Moody said. "They were named Central District Wrestling Coaches Association all-stars and are the other wrestlers that we will be leaning on for leadership."
Also returning are juniors Muneeb Ajlouni (132), Carter Holt (145) and Justen Shaw (160) and sophomore Tyler Edgington (152).
Among the newcomers are senior Alex Freewalt (152), juniors Charlie Freewalt (170/182), Isaac Richards (120) and Cade Ryan (138/145), sophomores Austin Craycraft (120), Sai Naidu (132/138) and Axel Ventura (106) and freshmen Zach Lithiluxa (113) and Isaiah Beneker (160/171).
"Axel Ventura had a fantastic preseason and will man the 106 spot. Plus, our depth at 120, 126, 132 and 138 is exciting," said Moody, whose team is the defending OCC-Cardinal Division champion. "We have many kids in that area that are pushing each other. I am pleased with the depth that we have in the program. We stand at 40 wrestlers, which is a little thinner than we want, but we have more than enough talent and depth to do something special.
"If we have a weakness, it is the inexperience in the middle of our lineup. ... It may take some time for the middle of our lineup to be solidified."
McDonald back to lead girls swimmers
Lexie McDonald of the girls swimming and diving team is seeking a return trip to Branin Natatorium in Canton as a senior.
In the Division I state meet last season, McDonald finished 18th in the 100-yard breaststroke (1 minute, 5.5 seconds) and teamed with 2017 graduate Tia McLaughlin, sophomore Isabel Quimba and junior Taylor Leone to place 23rd in the 200 medley relay (1:49.33).
"Lexie McDonald is the only individual state qualifier in Darby girls swimming history and was a member of the state medley relay," 19th-year coach Brian Dickmann said. "It's good to have 75 percent of the medley relay returning, too.
"Taylor was an individual district qualifier (in the 50 freestyle) and Isa also will be leaned on heavily for valuable points this season."
At district a year ago, McDonald placed sixth in the 100 breast (1:05.22) at Ohio State and the 200 medley relay was fifth (1:48.28), as both earned at-large state berths.
McLaughlin, McDonald, Quimba and Leone also comprised the 200 free relay (10th, 1:40.03) that just missed advancing to state and Leone narrowly missed a state berth in the 50 free (12th, 24.45). The Panthers totaled 70 points at district to tie Thomas Worthington for 12th behind champion Upper Arlington (433.5) as 25 teams scored.
Also returning are senior Halli Reinhard, juniors Ariana Spina and MacKensie Stellreicht and sophomore Margaret Lee.
"MacKensie will be counted on for valuable points in the freestyle events and relays and Ariana and Margaret are gaining strength and look ready for a breakout year," Dickmann said. "Halli is program record holder in diving as well as an OCC champion."
Completing the roster are sophomore Maricelia Pinan and freshmen Madyson Leone and Natalie Wood.
The boys team is expected to be led by seniors Riley Brokaw and Kendall Jones.
Brokaw finished 13th in the 500 free (4:57.94) and 19th in the 200 free (1:46.19) at district last season. Brokaw, Jones and junior Maaz Baig also were on the 17th-place 400 free relay (3:30.6) and the 18th-place 200 medley relay (1:45.3).
The Panthers did not have any state qualifiers a year ago.
Also on the roster are senior Matthew Logan, juniors Austen Delgado-Heaberlin, Gregory Montgomery and Joshua Snider, sophomores Fox Mallat and Nolan Willoughby and freshmen Hayden Apel, Brady Bower, Jefferey Reinhard and Malik Tarazi.
"Obviously, I expect a lot from our seniors, but we have some nice newcomers, too," Dickmann said. "Brady is an experienced club swimmer and has the opportunity to become one of Hilliard's all-time greats and Malik is an experienced club swimmer also.
"Hayden is an accomplished club diver and has competed at numerous national level meets. He has the opportunity to become the best diver in Hilliard history."
Ross steps down as girls volleyball coach
Joe Ross has stepped down after four seasons as girls volleyball coach.
Ross compiled a 61-36 record with the Panthers, who finished 15-9 overall and 9-3 in the OCC-Cardinal this fall.
In 2016, Darby finished 21-4 overall and 12-0 in the OCC-Cardinal, winning its first league championship since 1999.
"Joe informed us he is pursuing a coaching position on the college level and he met with the team last week," athletics director Chris Ludban said. "The girls were sad about it, but happy for him. We certainly appreciate everything Joe did for the program the past (four) years. He left the program in much better shape than when he took over and we hope to continue going in the right direction."
Interested candidates should send a letter of interest, resume and references to Ludban at firstname.lastname@example.org by Jan. 5.
SWIMMING & DIVING
Dec. 9 -- Westerville South at Hilliard YMCA
Dec. 16 -- Ned Reeb Invitational at Ohio State
Jan. 5-6 -- Delaware Invitational at Ohio Wesleyan
Jan. 10 -- Worthington Invitational at Thomas Worthington and Delaware at Ohio Wesleyan
Jan. 13 -- Davidson at Hilliard YMCA
Jan. 20 -- Bradley at Hilliard YMCA
Jan. 27 -- OCC-Cardinal meet at Thomas Worthington
Dec. 1 -- vs. Middletown, Cincinnati Oak Hills and Teays Valley
Dec. 6 -- vs. Grove City
Dec. 8-9 -- Ironman at Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit
Dec. 15-16 -- Fricker's Duals at Defiance College
*Dec. 21 -- at Worthington Kilbourne
Dec. 27-28 -- Medina Invitational Tournament
*Jan. 10 -- vs. Delaware
Jan. 13 -- Porter Memorial Invitational at Bradley
*Jan. 18 -- vs. Dublin Scioto
Jan. 20 -- Comet Classic at Central Crossing
*Jan. 25 -- at Thomas Worthington
Jan. 27 -- Frank Ferguson Classic at Wellsburg (W.Va.) Brooke
*Feb. 8 -- vs. Dublin Jerome
Feb. 10 -- All-North Tournament at Dublin Jerome
*Feb. 15 -- at Bradley
Below are the coming schedules for the Darby boys basketball, girls basketball, bowling and gymnastics teams:
*Dec. 15 -- Home vs. Worthington Kilbourne
Dec. 16 -- Home vs. Grove City
*Dec. 19 -- At Dublin Scioto
*Dec. 15 -- At Worthington Kilbourne
Dec. 16 -- At Grove City
*Dec. 14 -- Pickerington Central at Rule 3
*Dec. 18 -- Centennial at Game of Western Bowl
*Dec. 20 -- Newark at Game of Western Bowl
Dec. 16 -- Hilliard Invitational at Davidson