As Pickerington Central celebrated its Division I regional title March 9 at Otterbein, Westerville South High School senior girls basketball player Cailin Duffy looked on from her team's bench, fighting back tears while clutching the runner-up plaque.
Although the Wildcats fell short of advancing to their first state tournament, the future looks bright. They should return four starters and key reserves after finishing 21-6 overall with a 60-52 loss to Central.
South set the program record for wins in a season and won the OCC-Buckeye Division at 10-0, ahead of Olentangy Liberty (6-4), Westerville Central (6-4), Olentangy (5-5), Westerville North (3-7) and Olentangy Orange (0-10).
"During the tournament run we really played for each other, that was the biggest thing, and that kind of fell apart at the end of the game," Duffy said. "We kept our heads up and we wanted this game real bad, and we fought back as hard as we could."
The Wildcats led 33-25 early in third quarter before Central went on a 24-5 run to take a 49-38 lead heading into the fourth.
South responded by tying the score at 49, sparked by junior guard Peyton Guice's three free throws and Duffy's layup on an assist from junior guard Sommer Pitzer. Central took the lead for good on Madison Greene's basket with under two minutes remaining.
Duffy scored a team-high 15 points, while Guice had 12 and Pitzer added 10.
"There are a lot of things that this team has done that this one game will not break us," coach Silas Williams said. "We've come too far to let one game tear us apart."
South advanced to face Central by defeating Newark 62-57 in a regional semifinal March 6 at Otterbein. Sophomore post player Gabby Hutcherson scored a game-high 23 points and Guice added 12.
The Wildcats won the program's first district title by defeating second-seeded Dublin Coffman 68-58 on March 3 at Ohio Dominican as sophomore guard Anyssa Jones scored 23 points and Pitzer added 11. It was Williams' 100th career win.
After a first-round bye, the fifth-seeded Wildcats defeated 28th-seeded Mount Vernon 64-28 on Feb. 23 at home and 17th-seeded Canal Winchester 57-37 in a semifinal Feb. 28 at Whitehall.
Pitzer, who was named league Player of the Year for the third consecutive season, averaged 11.7 points. She also was first-team all-district.
Jones averaged 13.3 points and was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district. Guice averaged 7.9 points and was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-league.
Hutcherson, who missed the first 11 games because of OHSAA transfer rules, averaged 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds and was honorable mention all-district and all-league. She transferred from North.
Other players eligible to return are juniors Moriah Culver (guard) and Jasmine Konneker (guard), sophomores Asaya Bulgin (post player), Neveah McClure (guard) and Mira Rudolph (guard) and freshmen Aja Austin (post player) and Casey Humphrey (guard).
"We're very young," Williams said. "This is only going to make us better and it's going to make them hungrier. We'll be back for sure."
Boys basketball team reaches district final
Despite losing all five starters to graduation after last season, including Ohio Mr. Basketball Kaleb Wesson, the boys basketball team remained one of the top squads in central Ohio.
The Wildcats reached a Division I district final, which they lost to third-seeded Hilliard Bradley 59-46 on March 10 at Ohio Dominican to finish 15-9 overall.
South fell behind 24-9 after one quarter and could not recover.
Junior guard Jordan McMillian led the Wildcats with 24 points, and junior guard Ryan Greggs scored 13.
"I'm really proud of our kids for fighting through it," coach Ed Calo said. "We got down, but we never really felt that we were out. Our kids just kept on hanging in there and we had enough stops, we just didn't get enough scores. We did a great job defensively. They did a nice job attacking the glass."
Seeded eighth, South defeated 36th-seeded Marys-ville 92-63 on Feb. 24 and 28th-seeded Worthington Kilbourne 79-67 on March 2, both at home. The Wildcats then beat 12th-seeded Logan 59-47 in a semifinal March 7 at Pickerington Central.
Against Logan, Greggs scored 16 points, junior forward Emmanuel Sunnyway had 14 and McMillian added 11.
"It was a fun journey," Calo said. "Nobody really expected these kids to be as successful as they were. I thought a lot of people really underestimated us and we just kept on plugging away. We had some setbacks during the season, but the kids really never lost focus on trying to get better every day. I thought we played great in the tournament. We played three excellent games to get (to the district final)."
McMillian was named first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district. Sunnyway was special mention all-league and senior guard Hafiz Turay was honorable mention all-league.
Other players eligible to return are juniors Devin Caldwell (guard), Kwabena Darkwa (guard) and Jacob Singleton (guard) and sophomores Xavier Cannaday (guard), Jalen Norwood (guard) and Stephen Saint-Cyr (guard).
South went 5-5 in the OCC-Buckeye to finish third behind North (8-2) and Central (6-4) and ahead of Liberty (4-6), Orange (4-6) and Olentangy (3-7).
Wesson, now a freshman starter for Ohio State, averaged 21.7 points and 11.3 rebounds last season. In addition to his state honor, he was named district and OCC-Buckeye Player of the Year.
@ThisWeekFrankAt a glance
*Record: 15-9 overall, 5-5 (third) in OCC-Buckeye
*Seniors lost: Abu Jalloh, Malique Lyshe, Freeman Poku-Yeboah, Elton Sunnyway and Hafiz Turay
*Key returnees: Ryan Greggs, Jordan McMillian and Jacob Singleton
*Record: 21-6 overall, 10-0 (first) in OCC-Buckeye
*Seniors lost: Cailin Duffy, Christiana Robertson and Bryanna Sheppard
*Key returnees: Peyton Guice, Gabby Hutcherson, Anyssa Jones and Sommer Pitzer