Even with its entire lineup back from a year ago and no seniors on the roster, the Pickerington High School Central girls bowling team is tempering expectations.

The Tigers opened Dec. 4 with a 1,524-1,380 win over Pickerington North, defeating the Panthers for the first time since 2015 and avenging a 500-pin loss last season, and were 3-1 overall and the Central Ohio High School Bowling Conference-B Division and 2-1 in the OCC-Central before a Dec. 18 match against Reynoldsburg.

Equally important to junior Kate Merkel was a 2,021-1,562 loss to Gahanna on Dec. 6 that was considerably closer than the 633-pin margin by which the Tigers lost to the Lions a year ago.

"(North) has been a lot better than us in the past, so that was a huge boost. Gahanna is always really good, so we just wanted to do as well as we could. We closed the gap on them," Merkel said. "We're a lot closer in talent than we have been. My freshman year, we had maybe five freshmen and two seniors, so there was a huge gap. We've had a lot of the same girls since then and we've added a few, too. All of our averages have gone up at least a couple pins and we're better on spares. Everything all around seems better."

Juniors Kathy Burgess and Kiara Kozak and sophomores Sophie Makhoul and Frankie Moore also are back from last year, when Central went 5-8 overall and in the COHSBC-B and 2-3 in the OCC-Central.

Freshman Jaycie Arnet has proven to be a key addition, as she bowled a 333 two-game series against North and a 307 against Gahanna and was averaging 157.3 per game through four matches.

"She is outstanding and she's only going to get better," sixth-year coach Jason Roach said. "Our team keeps getting better. We saw improvement last year and we'll see more this year. I think our girls team could be district qualifiers this year and next year. They could be one of the better teams if they keep doing what they are supposed to do."

Central won both of its two matches last week, defeating Lancaster 1,664-1604 on Dec. 11 and Worthington Kilbourne 1,645-1,601 two days later.

Rounding out the roster are junior Victoria Deeds and sophomore Allison Whisman.

Led in part by returning Division I district qualifier Evan Tailford, the boys team was 1-3 overall and in the COHSBC-B and 0-3 in the OCC-Central before Dec. 18.

The Tigers opened with a 2,186-1,906 loss to North and fell to Gahanna 2,277-1,766 and Lancaster 2,080-1,766 before defeating Kilbourne 2,089-1,939.

Tailford, a senior, was averaging 152.4 through four matches, behind junior Grant Gilkey (165.3), senior Travis Allasi (164.9) and juniors Jamison Stoniosis (161) and Christian Kirton (159.5).

Kirton's 402 series, a team-best for the season entering the week, led Central past Kilbourne.

"The rest of the team is moving up from junior varsity, but they're talented and contributing right away," said Tailford, the only returnee from last season. "I feel like this year is a building year, but that doesn't mean we can't do some really good things this season."

Also on the roster are senior Mitchell Banks and sophomore Jonathan Reiner.

Last season, Central went 9-4 overall, 8-3 in the COHSBC-B and 4-2 in the OCC-Central.

"Evan is pretty steady," Roach said. "He is in that high-end range and the other kids will learn from him. In that first (match) against North, we bowled 1,906, but we had a first-year kid (Allasi) show up and bowl a 233. If you bowl a 2,000, you're a pretty good team. At 1,906 out of the gate with basically four junior varsity kids, that's pretty good. I'm really happy with them."

Ondongo learning role for girls team

After being the junior varsity girls basketball team's starting point guard the past two seasons, junior Felesia Ondongo is enjoying every minute of her adjustment to varsity.

Largely on the strength of her 3-point shooting, Ondongo averaged 9.5 points through four games. Central was 5-0 overall before playing Groveport on Dec. 18 and is 2-0 in the OCC-Ohio entering a visit to Reynoldsburg on Friday, Dec. 21.

The Tigers and Raiders shared the league championship last season as both teams went 9-1.

The 5-foot-8 Ondongo, who had eight 3-pointers through five games, second to Madison Greene's 10, has transitioned into a shooting guard. She generally is the Tigers' second player off the bench.

"Coming up from j.v. last year, I am still trying to get the feel of where (coach Johnathan Hedgepeth) needs me to be, but I know I can shoot," Ondongo said. "I just need to figure out where I can put myself so I'm in the best position to succeed. Being on j.v. playing point guard really helped me get my ball-handling together. I've played point guard my whole life, but that's not really where I want to be. I want to be a shooting guard because I can do more at that position."

Ondongo had a season-high 12 points in a 73-29 win at North on Dec. 7.

"The last few games she has come off the bench and given us a huge spark from (outside)," said Hedgepeth, whose team remained undefeated with a 58-24 win at Lancaster on Dec. 14. "We don't necessarily want to rely on that, but if somebody is hot, we're going to keep feeding them. ... Our kids, even the ones who come off the bench, could start in a lot of places. We just tell the girls to be ready to play at any given time."

Defense helping boys basketball team

Boys basketball coach Eric Krueger has preached strong defense since he took over the team during the 2013-14 season, and he credited an undefeated start to that side of the ball.

"You are what you emphasize," Krueger said. "We've been communicating well and playing team defense. The whole team has been doing it, not just the guys on the court at (a given) time."

Central allowed an average of 49.5 points in its first four games, wins over Springfield (64-46 on Dec. 1 in the All-Ohio High School Nike Hoops Showcase at Pickerington North), Dayton Thurgood Marshall (65-51 on Dec. 4), North (80-67 on Dec. 7) and Lancaster (90-34 on Dec. 14).

The Tigers were 4-0 overall before playing Groveport on Dec. 18 and are 2-0 in the OCC-Ohio entering a Friday, Dec. 21, game at Reynoldsburg.

New addition Jay Rodgers was integral during a key stretch against North, hitting a 3-pointer, assisting Sam Towns for a dunk and then making a layup to give Central a 13-point lead in the third quarter while helping hold the Panthers scoreless on the other end.

Rodgers and Towns, who had 14 points against Lancaster, both are from Pickerington originally but had played the previous two seasons at Springfield.

"They are a unique situation because it's not like a kid is coming from a random school 100 miles away. We've known Jay and Sam for years," Krueger said. "They're good kids and good teammates. They fit in very well."

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave

Schedules

BOWLING

*Dec. 4 -- Pickerington North at Rule 3

*Dec. 6 -- Gahanna at Rule 3

*Dec. 11 -- Lancaster at Tiki Lanes

*Dec. 13 -- Worthington Kilbourne at Capri Lanes

*Dec. 18 -- Reynoldsburg at Rule 3

*Jan. 7 -- Whitehall at Holiday Lanes

*Jan. 11 -- Hilliard Darby at Ten Pin Alley

*Jan. 18 -- Marysville at Marysville Lanes

*Jan. 28 -- Groveport at Wayne Webb's Columbus Bowl

*Jan. 30 -- Hilliard Davidson at Rule 3

*Feb. 4 -- Hilliard Bradley at Wayne Webb's Columbus Bowl

*Feb. 6 -- Thomas Worthington at Rule 3

*League contest

Below are the coming schedules for the Central boys basketball and girls basketball teams:

BOYS BASKETBALL

*Dec. 21 -- At Reynoldsburg

GIRLS BASKETBALL

*Dec. 21 -- At Reynoldsburg

*League contest