Little if any defense was being played during the Pickerington High School North boys basketball team's annual Panther Madness season kickoff event Nov. 15, so Chris Scott decided to take advantage with a few uncontested dunks.
The 6-foot-4 junior forward hung on the rim for several seconds after one of them, an action that would have drawn a technical foul during the season but one that on that night simply drew laughs from several teammates and a wide smile from Scott himself.
Inside dominance is a role Scott hopes to fill this season, as the Panthers find themselves a shorter team after the graduations of 6-foot-7 forward Jerome Hunter, 6-10 center Eli McNamara and 6-9 center/forward Ross Ryan. They now play at Indiana, Miami University and South Carolina Upstate, respectively, and Hunter and McNamara combined to average 28 points and 18 rebounds a year ago.
"Compared to last year, we'll be a lot younger, of course, and smaller, but we have four or five guys back who are just looking to carry the same principles over and keep this thing rolling," Scott said. "Last year, in our eyes we underachieved."
North went 20-5 overall and 9-1 in the OCC-Ohio Division last season, winning its first league championship since 2011 but losing to Mount Vernon 61-58 in a Division I district semifinal.
The Panthers opened Dec. 1 at home with an 89-58 rout of Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph in the All-Ohio Nike Hoops Showcase. Sophomore forward Jack Sawyer led North with a career-high 31 points.
Scott occasionally started as a sophomore but usually came off the bench. The 6-5 Sawyer, who has 15 Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship offers, returns to build on a freshman season in which he averaged 10.2 points and 7.6 rebounds, and 6-4 junior Hunter Shedenhelm will fill a guard/forward role after becoming a 3-point threat during the second half of last season.
"A lot of people are going to doubt us," Shedenhelm said. "We feel like we're underdogs, but we also have the chance to surprise a lot of people."
Fifth-year coach Jason Bates is encouraged by his team's versatility. He hopes to utilize Sawyer and Scott anywhere from small forward to center and said Shedenhelm can play shooting guard or either forward spot.
"They're hard workers. They might not be highly touted, but they were here last year playing with Big Ten and (Mid-American Conference) guys," Bates said. "We don't have a Big Ten or MAC guy right now, but they are playing because they love to play. They are all-in. ...
"People might say it was easy to be successful with the guys they had around them, but they didn't see what we saw every day. Those guys earned their positions. That's what has them ready to take it and run this year."
Rounding out the roster are seniors Jaylon Baylor (5-9, guard), Adrian Clarke (6-4, forward/center), Mike Lowery (6-1, guard) and Terrell West (5-10, guard), juniors Savion Marshall-Hamilton (6-6, center) and Aaron Oostenberg (6-4, forward), sophomores Omari Effiong (6-0, guard), Casey George (5-9, guard), Idris Lawrence (5-10, guard) and Jordan Lowery (6-4, forward) and freshmen Dior Conners (6-0, guard) and Jerry Saunders (6-0, guard).
North begins OCC-Ohio play Friday, Dec. 7, at home against Pickerington Central. The Panthers finished one game ahead of the second-place Tigers in the league last year before Central went on to win its second consecutive regional championship.
Wrestling team returns district qualifiers
Division I district qualifiers Elliot Mahaffey and Titus Mahaffey both return for the wrestling team, which is being directed by first-year coach Derek Oney and features 11 underclassmen in the lineup.
Elliot Mahaffey, a senior, went 28-14 at 160 pounds last year and will compete at 170 this year. Titus Mahaffey, a sophomore who was 14-12 a year ago, made district at 120 but began this season at 132.
North opened Dec. 1 with a ninth-place finish (52 points) in the 10-team Lee Spitzer Golden Bear Invitational at Upper Arlington as the host Golden Bears won (255).
"We started open gyms right after I got hired (in May) and was board-approved. We lifted, ran and got into pretty good shape," Oney said. "We're a young team. We've focused our attention on effort and attitude because those are really the only two things you can control. Nobody wants to drill for 90 minutes every day, but we are because we're trying to master skills."
Oney replaced Jake Kuhner, who coached the Panthers for three seasons and now is football coach at Watkins Memorial.
A Pickerington resident, Oney was head coach at Marion-Franklin from 2005-12. He was the Division I state runner-up at 152 in 1995 as a senior at Alliance and wrestled at Ohio University.
"I've known Jake for a while and I attended some matches last year. I came in familiar with the team, but they didn't know me," Oney said. "It's a good group, but a young group. They're learning how to compete more instead of just being in a match."
Other returnees include seniors Elijah Clarke (152) and Elijah Louis-Charles (120), junior Parker Bennett (132/138) and sophomores Rajesh Bomjan (113), David Carte (138) and Erik Gomez (113).
Rounding out the roster are senior William Herdman (145), juniors Cliff Effah (heavyweight), Josiah George (182) and Lawson Vaughn (220), sophomores Kyle Coffey (160), Van Ngoc (113) and Tyce Nue (heavyweight) and freshmen Joey Casa (106), Macston Reed (106), Bennet Trout (106) and Braden Watts (195).
North went 0-5 in the OCC-Ohio last year to finish sixth behind champion Lancaster (5-0).
The Panthers begin league competition Jan. 10 at Gahanna against the host Lions and Reynoldsburg.
Dec. 1 -- vs. Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph in All-Ohio Nike Hoops Showcase
Dec. 4 -- vs. Linden-McKinley
*Dec. 7 -- vs. Pickerington Central
*Dec. 14 -- at Gahanna
Dec. 18 -- at Westland
*Dec. 21 -- at Lancaster
Dec. 22 -- Columbus East in Coaches for a Cure at Capital
*Jan. 4 -- vs. Reynoldsburg
Jan. 5 -- Centennial in The Challenge at Africentric
Jan. 8 -- vs. Dublin Coffman
*Jan. 11 -- at Grove City
Jan. 15 -- vs. Logan
*Jan. 18 -- at Pickerington Central
Jan. 22 -- at Groveport
*Jan. 25 -- vs. Gahanna
Jan. 26 -- Olentangy Liberty in Jared Sullinger Ohio Scholastic Play-by-Play Classic at Pickerington Central
*Feb. 1 -- vs. Lancaster
Feb. 2 -- vs. Toledo Scott
Feb. 5 -- vs. Canal Winchester
*Feb. 8 -- at Reynoldsburg
Feb. 12 -- at Dublin Jerome
*Feb. 15 -- vs. Grove City
Dec. 1 -- Lee Spitzer Golden Bear Invitational at Upper Arlington
Dec. 8 -- Harry Steel Wrestling Invitational at London
Dec. 14-15 -- Liberty Classic at Olentangy Liberty
Jan. 5 -- Kevin Cleveland Invitational at Dublin Scioto
*Jan. 10 -- at Gahanna with Reynoldsburg
Jan. 19 -- Panther Invitational at home
*Jan. 24 -- Grove City and Lancaster at Pickerington Central
Jan. 26 -- Watkins Memorial Invitational
*Feb. 7 -- vs. Pickerington Central
Feb. 9 -- Canal Winchester Invitational
Feb. 16 -- Nye Cardinal Classic at St. Charles
Below are the coming schedules for the North girls basketball, bowling and swimming & diving teams:
*Dec. 7 -- Home vs. Pickerington Central
*Dec. 11 -- Groveport at Rule 3
*Dec. 12 -- Pickerington Central at Rule 3
SWIMMING & DIVING
Dec. 7-8 -- Ned Reeb Memorial Invitational at Ohio State