The Pickerington High School North girls swimming and diving team's 400-yard freestyle relay had a feeling the outcome of the season-opening Mason Invitational might come down to them.

Senior Lindsey Keaton, junior Emily Grube and sophomores Rylee Kreinbrink and Lillian Muszynzki went out and swam as if the Panthers' fate depended on them Dec. 1, winning in 3 minutes, 49.54 seconds to close out a 340.5-point day and first place in the 17-team meet, ahead of the host and defending Division I state champion Comets (283.5).

Second-year coach Justin Dortch, who intentionally hadn't let those swimmers know that North already had clinched the meet title before their race, loved their intensity and overall performances in a competitive field.

"What (the Mason Invitational) showed was the total amount of depth this program has on all sides," said Dortch, whose team returns an individual state qualifier in Kreinbrink and lost one to graduation in Kelsey Morgan. "I think people thought this might be more of a rebuilding year, and what we discovered (at Mason) and what I've known for a while is that we're deep everywhere. We can go three or four deep. We went down to that meet and were successful against the defending state champions.

"There was some surprise and shock from some other teams as to how deep we are. We're not just loading a relay or two relays."

Depth was on display throughout North's lineup to start the season.

In the 50 free, Keaton finished first (26.02), Muszynski tied for second (26.14) and junior Kate Kinley was seventh (26.96). Keaton was second in the 100 backstroke (1:03.91), two spots ahead of sophomore teammate Sydney Hopkins (1:04.22), and in the 100 individual medley, senior Grace Cherryhomes placed second (1:03.59) and sophomore Regan Turnbull was fourth (1:05.57).

Morgan, who now swims for Ohio University, was eighth at state last year in the 100 breaststroke and 16th in the 200 individual medley and helped the 200 free relay and 200 medley relay to 16th-place finishes.

Kreinbrink placed 13th in the 100 butterfly at state and was on both relays, as were Cherryhomes and Keaton.

Grube said she prefers freestyle events but anticipates participating in several strokes.

"We were all pretty tired, but coach pulled us aside in the middle of the meet (at Mason) and told us how we were doing. That was huge motivation," Grube said. "We've been pushing ourselves and working really hard. We have talent throughout the lineup. We're pretty excited about this season."

Other expected contributors as the Panthers pursue their third consecutive OCC-Ohio Division championship include seniors Caitlin McCluskey and Abby Zack and sophomores Emma Boder, Emily Harness and Kristin Shuster.

"I'm able to play with the lineup in ways I've never been able to (because of our depth)," Dortch said.

Underclassmen to help guide boys swim team

No boys swimmer advanced to state last year, but seniors Anthony Ojeda-Pesa and Wyatt Ross and juniors Connor Daniel and Spencer White expect to lead a team that Dortch thinks will include several underclassman contributors.

In the Mason Invitational, White placed sixth in the 500 free (5:19.63) and Daniel was seventh in both the 100 back (1:00) and 100 IM (59.7), as the Panthers finished seventh (107) of 17 teams behind nine-time defending Division I state champion Cincinnati St. Xavier (475).

"Everyone will continue to improve," Dortch said. "Everybody has the expectation of not just doing better individually, but setting a focus on making the team itself stronger. It's been successful so far."

According to Dortch, underclassmen who will make an impact could include sophomores Tyler Brunelle and Luke Grilli and freshman Gavin Mumma. None of them made championship finals at Mason but expect to be used across a variety of events.

"We only have a handful of upperclassmen and then a lot of young guys. We're pretty young. We just want to build for the future," said Brunelle, who swam the 100 IM and 500 free at Mason and was on the 200 medley relay that finished eighth (1:53.04). "We want to do well this year, but we want to get better each and every year and I think we can do that. We have some young swimmers who can be very good.

"We want to get better, obviously, so however we get better works."

Other contributors include senior Mason White, junior Jon Mason, sophomores Nathan Ojeda-Pesa and Braedan Venetta and freshmen Jacob Gill and Carter Linker.

"We have a lot of really good younger guys. Gavin has taken leaps and bounds this year," Dortch said. "He's coming into his own and learning he can contribute at such a young age."

Basketball teams swept by Tigers

Boys basketball coach Jason Bates planned to use an 80-67 home loss to Central on Dec. 7, the Panthers' first setback of the season, as a teachable moment.

Hunter Shedenhelm had 21 points and Jack Sawyer scored 19 to lead North, which was within five points at 24-19 in the second quarter but fell behind by as many as 22 early in the fourth.

The Panthers had averaged 90.5 points in their first two games, home wins over Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph (89-58 on Dec. 1) and Linden-McKinley (92-44 on Dec. 4). North is 2-1 overall and 0-1 in the OCC-Ohio entering a Friday, Dec. 14, game at Gahanna.

"We have a good, talented group, but this was their first time with these kinds of responsibilities in this type of game," Bates said. "(Central's) experience won out. Their guys were in these kinds of games last year. They are long and talented and very athletic. We struggled keeping them off the glass and (Central's Jahvon) Garcia had a phenomenal game."

Garcia, a senior guard, scored a game-high and career-high 28 points.

The girls team had a two-game winning streak snapped with a 73-29 loss to Central earlier that night.

Avery Hart had eight points to lead the Panthers, who fell behind 8-0 in the opening minutes, gave up a 13-0 run later in the quarter and trailed 35-14 at halftime.

North is 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the OCC-Ohio entering a Dec. 14 home game against Gahanna.

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave

Schedules

SWIMMING & DIVING

Dec. 1 -- Mason Invitational

Dec. 7-8 -- Ned Reeb Memorial Invitational at Ohio State

Dec. 14-15 -- Northwest Classic at Bowling Green

Dec. 29 -- Stampede Cloverleaf Invitational at The College of Wooster

Jan. 5 -- Southeast Classic Invitational at Ohio University

Jan. 12 -- Central Ohio Splash Invitational at Thomas Worthington and Northeast Classic at Branin Natatorium in Canton

Jan. 18 -- at Columbus School for Girls with St. Charles

Jan. 19 -- Presidential Pentathlon at Ohio Wesleyan

Jan. 26 -- OCC-Ohio meet at Upper Arlington

Below are the coming schedules for the North boys basketball, girls basketball, bowling and wrestling teams:

BOYS BASKETBALL

*Dec. 14 -- At Gahanna

Dec. 18 -- At Westland

GIRLS BASKETBALL

*Dec. 14 -- Home vs. Gahanna

Dec. 18 -- Home vs. Westland

BOWLING

*Dec. 13 -- Whitehall at Rule 3

*Dec. 18 -- Marysville at Marysville Lanes

WRESTLING

Dec. 14-15 -- Liberty Classic at Olentangy Liberty

*League contest