Eli McNamara doesn't remember what he did to impress so many college coaches during an AAU tournament last summer in Atlanta, but it was enough to send his Pickerington High School North boys basketball coach scrambling for his phone charger.
"I just played hard and did some things well," the 6-foot-9 senior forward said with a smile and a shrug.
Almost 500 miles away, Panthers coach Jason Bates began fielding calls right and left from college coaches.
"My phone blew up," Bates said. "I was wishing I could be there. I could only imagine what he was doing, but I was getting non-stop calls about Eli. I called him to see what was going on. He just said, 'I'm just playing. I'm doing good.' "
That has been an ongoing theme for McNamara, a Miami University recruit whose inside play has helped North to an undefeated start in OCC-Ohio Division play and fuel its hopes of another memorable season. McNamara is averaging 9.9 points and 9.1 rebounds for the Panthers, who are 10-2 overall and 4-0 in the OCC-Ohio entering a Friday, Jan. 19, home game against Pickerington Central.
McNamara, a three-year varsity player, came off the bench as a sophomore but, according to Bates, made huge strides as a junior as he adjusted to the physical nature of the varsity game and began to effectively utilize his skill set both inside and on the perimeter.
McNamara averaged 9.2 points and 8.0 rebounds last season to help the Panthers win their first Division I district championship and finish as a regional runner-up.
"He's been our anchor," Bates said. "He took some hard roles. He might have been our seventh guy in the rotation (as a sophomore), but in the meantime, he continued to work and work. His junior year, we weren't as surprised as everybody else because we had seen it coming, the natural progression to play major minutes. And he was ready for it."
McNamara's best statistical night thus far this season was a 17-point, 13-rebound performance in a 54-40 win over Gahanna on Dec. 15. He scored a career-high 20 points seven nights earlier in a 59-41 win at Central.
That all happened even as McNamara was unexpectedly filling a different role. Senior center Ross Ryan, a move-in from Centerburg, fractured his right kneecap during a scrimmage and did not make his season debut until Jan. 6, meaning McNamara played center instead of his natural forward position.
"He looked as natural at (center) as he does at (forward)," teammate Dondre Palmer said before Ryan's return. "When Ross comes back, Eli will be basically doing the same thing. We'll just be adding a 6-10 tree next to him. ...
"If (McNamara) keeps playing how he is playing, he will always make something happen."
McNamara credited some of his improvement to classmate Jerome Hunter, a forward and Indiana recruit who is averaging a team-high 23.6 points. Hunter scored a career-high 46 points in a 91-88 triple-overtime win at Dublin Coffman on Jan. 9 and the next day was named a nominee for the McDonald's All-American Game on March 28 in Atlanta.
Finalists were expected to be announced Jan. 16.
"I definitely look up to Jerome," said McNamara, who received 12 scholarship offers. "Every time we play with and against each other, we just make each other better in a bunch of different ways.
"I knew I could be a leader (last year), but this is a much bigger role. Strength has been my biggest (improvement) and then rebounding. Defense has been huge for me, and just overall training."
Sawyer takes pride in outside shooting
With sophomore Saige Glover emerging as an inside presence for the girls basketball team, senior forward Kyla Sawyer is free to play more on the perimeter, and she is making the most of that change.
Sawyer has been the Panthers' most dependable 3-point shooter, having made 45 such shots through 13 games. North was 7-6 overall before playing Hilliard Davidson on Jan. 16 and is 2-3 in the OCC-Ohio heading into its Friday, Jan. 19, home game against Central.
In an 86-48 win at Westland on Dec. 19, Sawyer made a program-record 10 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 34 points.
She hit 20 3-pointers all of last season, including six in a game against Coffman.
"I don't have to dive down (into the paint) right now. I can stay outside and try to get a shot," Sawyer said.
"I started working on it a lot sophomore year. Freshman year, I was more of a mid-range shooter in the post a lot because we had a lot of guards. Then I had to start stepping out more. (Danelle Bradley, a 2017 graduate who now plays at Quinnipiac University) and I were the main outside shooters, but we have some other guards this year and are really shooting well."
Sawyer was averaging 15 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists through 13 games, shooting 45-for-88 from 3-point range.
North will try to snap a six-game losing streak to Central when it plays host to the Tigers. The Panthers have not defeated Central since a 59-52 win on Jan. 6, 2015, and trail the all-time series 12-7.
Glover had 10 points and Sawyer scored nine in a 67-41 loss at Central on Dec. 9. Mayson Bates added eight points and Mickale Bates seven in a game North never led.
Wrestlers preparing for home invitational
Several freshmen have joined the wrestling team's lineup, and despite an 0-2 start to OCC-Ohio competition, coach Jake Kuhner sees promise.
North dropped two matches at home Jan. 11, falling 45-34 to Reynoldsburg and 45-30 to Gahanna.
Of the 12 freshmen in the program, Eric Gomez and Van Ngoc have been vying for time at 106 pounds. Rajesh Bonjan is at 113 and David Carte is wrestling at a crowded 145 class that also includes junior Andrew Smathers and sophomore Parker Bennett, a Division I district qualifier last year.
"Rajesh will be somebody to look for in the future," Kuhner said. "We have some (talented) guys. By the end of the regular season, we should be ready to roll. With these freshmen and sophomores in the lineup, we will have some growing pains. We are loaded with freshmen, and we see a lot of promise from them."
North has battled adversity at its upper weights. Baylon Watts (195) has been out since late December because of an injury, although Kuhner said he might cut to 182 when he returns, and the Panthers have had to forfeit matches at 195, 220 and heavyweight.
North will play host to the Panther Invitational on Saturday, Jan. 20. Rounding out the field are Canal Winchester, Central, Columbus South, Franklin Heights, Gahanna, Granville, Hilliard Bradley, Mount Vernon, New Albany, Ready, Upper Arlington, Westerville Central and Westerville South.
"A big thing for us right now is we just have to understand we can't give up pins in duals," Kuhner said.
"We have a lot of young guys. We just have to keep working them. We have to work harder in the room and pay attention to coaching."