The Pickerington High School North wrestling team finished fourth in its first tournament of the season, but third-year coach Jake Kuhner was just as pleased with what he didn't see from his team.
"We're in shape (and) we are ahead of schedule right now, especially as compared to some of the other teams," Kuhner said. "I didn't see us getting a lot of stalling calls, pushbacks and guys gassing out and losing matches. (At) the beginning of the season, those are the things we look for -- who's out of shape, who needs to crank it up conditioning-wise, things like that. I was pleased with how we finished."
Senior Brandon Hassel won the 138-pound championship in the Lee Spitzer Golden Bear Invitational on Dec. 2 at Upper Arlington, pinning the Golden Bears' Miles Pearson in 1 minute, 14 seconds, and junior Baylon Watts placed second at 182 as the Panthers scored 122 points in the 12-team event as Vandalia Butler (267) won.
Hassel, who had a team-best 28-12 record last season and came within one win of qualifying for his first Division I state tournament, is one of two district qualifiers back, along with junior Elliott Mahaffey (160).
Hassel said an increased emphasis on conditioning and tougher drills in practice has contributed to the team's early discipline.
"Our guys that have lost (matches so far), most of them, it wasn't about conditioning. It was mostly because of skill level-type things. If they can get more educated on the sport, we will be pretty good," said Hassel, who, according to Kuhner, eventually will wrestle at 132, his weight class of a year ago. "The difference between other seasons and this year is probably just consistency. We did some open mats last year, but they didn't have a lot of people show up. This year, we had a lot of people show up to open mats consistently."
All five wrestlers who recorded at least a .500 record last season are back in Hassel, Mahaffey (17-16), senior Karon Williams (220, 12-8) and juniors Elijah Clarke (138/145, 13-13) and Josiah George (152/160, 11-11).
According to Kuhner, Williams is injured and George is sidelined by his fourth concussion and will not compete for the foreseeable future.
Rounding out the current lineup are seniors Atticus Mahaffey (120) and Baylon Watts (182), juniors Elijah Louis-Charles (120) and Andrew Smathers (138/145/152) and freshmen Rajesh Bonjan (106/113), David Carte (138), Eric Gomez (106), Van Ngoc (106/113) and Zamen Siyoum (152/160).
"We have room for growth because a lot of guys are young. I see so much room for improvement," Watts said. "I've grown a lot, not necessarily technique-wise, but mentally, how I think about wrestling and daily practice and how I mentally come at the sport."
Kuhner said last week he is attempting to bring a handful of football players onto the team to provide extra depth, especially at the upper weights.
"This is probably the most solid team we've had in the three years I've been here," Kuhner said. "A lot of these guys came in off a great summer. They came in, they came to camp, they came to open mats and you can see that now. They aren't fresh off another sport. You can tell they have been fully involved with us."
North went 2-3 in the OCC-Ohio Division last season to tie Grove City for fourth behind champion Lancaster (5-0). The Panthers begin league competition Jan. 11 at home with a quad-meet against Gahanna and Reynoldsburg.
Swim teams off to strong starts
Although the girls swimming and diving team's performance in the Mason Invitational on Dec. 2 was not directly tied to its hopes of repeating as OCC-Ohio champions, the Panthers and coach Justin Dortch hope it signals big things to come.
Junior Grace Cherryhomes set a meet and pool record of 1 minute, 2.54 seconds in the 100-yard individual medley, and the Panthers scored 264 points to finish second in the 21-team meet behind Akron Firestone (282). Mason, which has been Division I state runner-up to Upper Arlington each of the past two seasons, was third (249).
Freshman Rylee Krienbrink won the 100 butterfly (59.33) and placed second in the 50 freestyle (25.53).
"We are intentionally swimming at bigger meets this year because I think this group is incredibly talented," Dortch said. "I think that's justified in the results while still seeing these kids swim tired."
North opened with a 165-105 win over league rival Lancaster on Nov. 27 at the Robert K. Fox Family YMCA, which is the home pool for both teams. The Panthers' boys team lost to Lancaster 135-129 and finished 14th (37) of 19 teams at Mason behind champion Cincinnati St. Xavier (431.5).
St. Xavier is the defending Division I state champion.
North took a big hit when senior Jason Mathews, last year's state champion in the 100 breaststroke, and his younger sister, sophomore Janessa Mathews, transferred to Westerville North. Jason is a three-time state qualifier, and Janessa finished third in the 100 breast and 21st in the 200 IM at state last season.
Junior Wyatt Ross emerged as an early team leader, winning the 100 breast against Lancaster (1:09.92) and at Mason (1:06.68).
"He realizes he needs to step forward," Dortch said. "It will take a team (to replace the Mathews siblings). One kid cannot do everything."
Cherryhomes said she is excited about using her versatility to fill several roles.
"My freshman year at district, I swam the 50 free and the 100 free. My sophomore year, I swam the 100 fly and the 200 IM, so (those were) two totally different events," Cherryhomes said. "Right now, I am going with the flow. I don't know what (events) I am doing yet."
North has a total of 53 swimmers, 39 of whom are girls.
Other top girls swimmers so far have included seniors Anna Cherryhomes, Gracie Kane, Kelsey Morgan and Caroline Ramos, junior Caitlin McCluskey, sophomores Lindsey Keaton and Kate Kinley and freshmen Lilian Muszynski and Regan Turnbull.
Top boys early on have included senior Kevin Mason, junior Anthony Ojeda-Pesa and sophomores Connor Daniel and Spencer White.
In last year's league meet, the girls scored 360 points to edge runner-up Gahanna, while the boys' six-year streak of league titles was snapped when it finished third (239) behind champion Lancaster (311).
Dortch, a 1999 Pickerington graduate who swam at Bowling Green State University and took over for Nicolas Davis during the offseason, is in his fourth stint coaching in the school district. He coached Central's girls team from 2003-05 and both North teams in 2012-13 before taking over both North and Central for three seasons from 2013-16.
Dortch stepped down to devote more time to his law career, but soon found he missed the sport more than he expected.
"This group of kids means a lot to me," Dortch said. "I'd coached a lot of them in some capacity since they were 8 years old or so. They're such a good group and it was hard for me to be away."
SWIMMING & DIVING
Nov. 27 -- Lancaster at Robert K. Fox Family YMCA
Dec. 2 -- Mason Invitational
Dec. 9 -- Northwest Classic at Bowling Green
Dec. 16 -- Ned Reeb Invitational at Ohio State
Dec. 22 -- Bexley at Columbus School for Girls
Dec. 30 -- Stampede Cloverleaf Invitational at The College of Wooster
Jan. 6 -- at St. Charles with Hartley
Jan. 13 -- Northeast Classic at Branin Natatorium in Canton
Jan. 19 -- at Columbus School for Girls with Dublin Coffman
Jan. 20 -- Westerville Central at Westerville Community Center
Jan. 27 -- OCC-Ohio meet at Thomas Worthington
Feb. 2 -- Pickerington Central and Reynoldsburg at Robert K. Fox Family YMCA
Dec. 2 -- Lee Spitzer Golden Bear Invitational at Upper Arlington
Dec. 9 -- Wolfpack Invitational at Worthington Kilbourne
Dec. 15-16 -- Liberty Classic at Olentangy Liberty
Jan. 6 -- Kevin Cleveland Invitational at Dublin Scioto
*Jan. 11 -- vs. Gahanna and Reynoldsburg
Jan. 13 -- Big Dawg Invitational at Dresden Tri-Valley
Jan. 20 -- Panther Invitational at home
*Jan. 25 -- at Lancaster with Grove City
Jan. 27 -- Watkins Memorial Invitational
Feb. 3 -- Canal Winchester Invitational
*Feb. 8 -- at Pickerington Central
Feb. 17 -- Nye Cardinal Classic at St. Charles
Below are the coming schedules for the North boys basketball, girls basketball and bowling teams:
*Dec. 15 -- Home vs. Gahanna
Dec. 19 -- Home vs. Westland
*Dec. 15 -- At Gahanna
Dec. 19 -- At Westland
*Dec. 14 -- Columbus Academy at HP Lanes
*Dec. 19 -- Lancaster at Tiki Lanes