With eight starters back in the fold, including four district qualifiers, the Hilliard Darby High School wrestling team is expecting another solid season despite not having a returning state qualifier.
"This is the first time in 10 years that we have not had a returning state qualifier, so we do not have that experience to help carry us through tough times," 10th-year coach Brendan Moody said. "However, if we have kids hungry to jump to that level, then we can still make a special impression this season."
The Panthers lost two Division I state qualifiers to graduation in Jared Ball and Jacob Cover. Ball finished third at state at 195 pounds last season and Cover placed fourth at heavyweight after both won sectional and district titles. Ball had a career record of 156-17 and is the program's only three-time state placer, while Cover went 134-47 for his career.
Darby also lost a district qualifier in Ryan Blackerby (120), who did not return for his junior season.
"We have a large core of our team back this season," Moody said. "We have some tightly contested weights, which will only make our wrestling room more intense in practice. We must now attempt to have our kids go from varsity-level wrestlers to district- and state-level wrestlers."
The Panthers' four returning district qualifiers are seniors Rodney Beneker (220), Ben Brown (138) and Isaac Richards (126) and junior Caiden Rayburn (160). Rayburn qualified for district as a freshman, but not last season.
"Rodney is entering his fourth year of varsity experience and is a returning district qualifier and sectional champion," Moody said. "He's moving up to 220 from 182 and will be one of our leaders on and off the mat. He led the team in takedowns last season and was first-team all-OCC-Cardinal (Division), so we're expecting big things from him.
"Ben also is entering his fourth year on varsity and he's a two-time district qualifier and is our most prominent leader. He was second-team all-OCC-Cardinal last year."
Last season, Beneker finished 32-10, Richards went 23-12 and Brown was 26-18 at 132.
Sophomore Isaiah Beneker (170/182) was a district alternate last year after placing fifth at 160 at sectional.
Other returnees are seniors Muneeb Ajlouni (132), Carter Holt (152/160), Cade Ryan (126/132) and Justen Shaw (170), juniors Tyler Edgington (145/152) and Sai Naidu (145) and sophomores Blayne Barnes (220), Zach Lithiluxa (113/120) and Bradley Weaver (195).
Barnes was first-team all-league last season at 195.
"We are fairly evenly balanced in our lineup," Moody said. "We are a little young in the lightweights, but they are scrapping every day and hopefully will be up to the challenge. Our middleweights have the most experience, as that's where the majority of our seniors compete. Our upperweights are extremely athletic."
Newcomers include senior Luke Fleenor (170), sophomores Josh DiGoia (132/138), Woody Doad (106/113), Luke Huntzinger (182), Jacob Neri (heavyweight) and Sam Pence (160) and freshmen Nathan Morris (126) and Xander Ramirez (106).
Darby opened Nov. 30 by beating Westland 46-20 in a dual. The Panthers begin OCC-Cardinal competition Dec. 13 at first-year Olentangy Berlin. They went 4-2 in the league last year to tie Dublin Scioto for third, behind co-champions Delaware and Bradley (5-1).
Boys basketball team may need time to jell
The boys basketball team may need time to jell this season, as it returns just one starter from last season when it finished 12-11 overall.
The lone returning starter is 5-foot-8 senior guard Jaeln Benjamin. But his return likely won't take place until early January, as he is recovering from a broken leg suffered during football season.
Last season, Benjamin averaged 8.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists and was named special mention all-OCC-Cardinal, as the Panthers went 7-5 in the league to place second behind Bradley (12-0).
"Jaeln is a really nice high school point guard who is great at getting to the rim, but he's going to miss our first six to 10 games," fifth-year coach Chris Maul said. "He had a really great summer."
Also returning are 5-10 senior guard Kyle Miller, who averaged 4.3 points last season, and 6-2 sophomore guard Andrew Patrick, who averaged 6.3 points.
"Miller is a fantastic set shooter who has added some versatility to his game this year and Patrick is a great leader as a sophomore and is our most versatile player," said Maul, whose team opened Nov. 29 with a 69-37 loss at Marysville.
Other expected starters early in the season are 6-4 senior forward Kai Burmeister and 5-11 junior guard Nick Skelskey. Expected to fill in for Benjamin during his absence are 5-9 junior guards Chase Dimick and Parker Hambel.
"We're very young and most of our players are guards who can handle it and shoot it well," Maul said. "I'm interested to see how they handle the physicality and speed of varsity games because we're not very deep and we only have two guys who are over 6-foot."
Completing the roster are senior Jacob Foster (6-0, forward) and juniors Logan Slubowski (5-9, guard) and Cody Wendel (5-10, guard).
The Panthers lost six players from a year ago to graduation, including forward Chandler Barlow and guard Josh Govine. Barlow was first-team all-league and Govine was on the second team. Both were honorable mention all-district.
"Those guys really bought in and that's why we went from 4-19 (in 2016-17) to 12-11 (last season) and we won our share of close ones," Maul said. "Fifteen of our 23 games were decided by five points or less. To have success this season, we must buy in, defend and rebound. We've got to force tough shots and be relentless on defense."
Nov. 29 -- at Marysville
*Dec. 7 -- vs. Delaware
Dec. 8 -- at Groveport
Dec. 11 -- vs. Olentangy Orange
*Dec. 14 -- at Worthington Kilbourne
*Dec. 18 -- vs. Dublin Scioto
*Dec. 21 -- at Olentangy Berlin
Dec. 23 -- at Watterson
Dec. 28 -- vs. Davidson
*Jan. 4 -- vs. Dublin Jerome
*Jan. 8 -- at Thomas Worthington
*Jan. 11 -- vs. Bradley
Jan. 15 -- vs. Watkins Memorial
*Jan. 18 -- at Delaware
*Jan. 22 -- at Dublin Scioto
*Jan. 25 -- vs. Worthington Kilbourne
Jan. 29 -- at Canal Winchester
*Feb. 1 -- at Dublin Jerome
*Feb. 5 -- at Olentangy Berlin
*Feb. 8 -- vs. Thomas Worthington
Feb. 12 -- vs. Jonathan Alder
*Feb. 15 -- at Bradley
Nov. 30 -- vs. Westland
Dec. 6 -- vs. Canal Winchester
Dec. 8 -- Big Walnut Classic
*Dec. 13 -- at Olentangy Berlin
Dec. 15 -- Big Dawg Invitational at Dresden Tri-Valley
*Dec. 20 -- vs. Worthington Kilbourne
Dec. 27-28 -- Medina Invitational Tournament
*Jan. 10 -- at Delaware
Jan. 12 -- Porter Memorial Invitational at Bradley
*Jan. 17 -- at Dublin Scioto
*Jan. 24 -- vs. Thomas Worthington
Jan. 25-26 -- Raider Invitational at Bellefontaine Benjamin Logan
Jan. 31 -- vs. Utica
*Feb. 7 -- at Dublin Jerome
Feb. 9 -- All-North Tournament at Dublin Jerome
*Feb. 14 -- vs. Bradley
Below are the coming schedules for the Darby girls basketball and gymnastics teams:
*Dec. 7 -- At Delaware
Dec. 8 -- At Groveport
Dec. 11 -- At Olentangy Orange
*Dec. 12 -- At Davidson with Bradley, Central Crossing, Franklin Heights, Grove City and Westland