The Hilliard Darby High School wrestling team earned the outright OCC-Cardinal Division title by beating visiting Bradley 39-26 on Feb. 14.
The Panthers, who finished 7-0 in the league, are hoping to ride the momentum into the postseason, which starts with a 10-team Division I sectional Saturday, Feb. 23, at Newark. The top four finishers in each weight class at sectional advance to the district tournament March 1 and 2 at Darby.
However, some of the good vibes were tempered by injuries sustained during the final week of the regular season.
Senior Rodney Beneker was injured in the All-North Tournament on Feb. 9 at Dublin Jerome but gutted out a win against Bradley by pinning Jacob Noble at heavyweight.
"I sprained my meniscus and MCL at the All-North and I only felt 60 or maybe 70 percent out there (against Bradley)," said Beneker, who was noticeably limping. "It really bothered me when I was on the bottom, but it's great to be league champions. I have to go to the doctor and see what he says, but I'll do everything in my power to be ready for sectionals."
Beneker improved to 32-5 with the victory.
"Rodney woke up the day after the All-North Tournament and said things didn't feel right, but we don't know when or what happened in the tournament," coach Brendan Moody said. "He was a last-minute decision for Bradley and if we started the dual at lightweights rather than 182 (pounds), we may not have used him if we had a sizable lead.
"But I am glad that I didn't have to tell him he wasn't wrestling, because that would've been a fight. He's a warrior, it's his last home match and it's against our rival."
As of Feb. 18, Moody said Beneker's chances of competing at sectional remained "up in the air."
Beneker's brother, Isaiah, suffered a broken finger in the All-North Tournament and is out for the remainder of the season. The sophomore finished 22-14 at 170.
Senior Muneeb Ajlouni secured the win against Bradley by earning a pin at 145, giving the Panthers an insurmountable 36-17 lead.
"I was just thinking of doing my job and focusing on getting a pin," said Ajlouni, who is 24-13. "I just stayed focused on helping my team and nobody was scoreboard watching. I came back to the bench and it was a few minutes before my teammates were talking about that clinching the win and championship. That's why we didn't celebrate in the moment. Nobody realized it right away and then you encourage the rest of your teammates during their matches."
Entering the sectional, Ben Brown (132) is 28-10, Bradley Weaver (195) is 23-7, Isaac Richards (126) is 21-6, Blayne Barnes (220) is 23-10, Sam Pence (152) is 23-12, Justen Shaw (182) is 25-14, Nathan Morris (120) is 19-10 and Cade Ryan (138) is 21-14.
The Panthers finished fourth (127) behind champion Marysville (187) in the 18-team All-North Tournament, as Richards and Rodney Beneker both placed second, Weaver finished third, Shaw was fourth and Brown and Ajlouni both placed fifth.
Apel, Peck advance to state swim meet
Sophomore Hayden Apel and freshman Mason Peck will represent the boys swimming and diving team in the Division I state meet this week at Branin Natatorium in Canton.
Apel will be making his second state appearance in diving after placing fifth with 482.6 points in the district meet Feb. 15 at Ohio State, where the top five finishers advanced.
"I did not perform my best last year and I'm excited to go back and try to redeem myself," said Apel, who will compete Saturday, Feb. 23. "On my second dive, I lost one of my legs. It slipped out in my pike. Things went downhill from there. I was super nervous, but I'm hoping I am more composed this time."
Apel placed 19th (260.75) at state last year and is seeded sixth this season. He won the OCC-Cardinal title with 481.45 points, but said he is still making adjustments.
"I had a few dives at district that weren't my best, but I'm still trying to make some changes that my coaches wanted me to make entering district," Apel said. "I've got one more week to try to get it all down and be ready for state."
Peck qualified for state in the 100-yard butterfly. He finished third at district in 51.07 seconds and is seeded 17th at state. The preliminaries are Friday, Feb. 22, with finals being held the next day.
Also at district, Peck placed 11th in the 200 freestyle (1:44.85) and Casey Maruniak finished 10th in the 100 breaststroke (1:00.2).
The times in eight of Darby's 10 swims at district improved from sectional. The Panthers scored 49 points to finish 15th behind champion Dublin Jerome (301) as 27 teams scored.
The girls team competed in three events at district, but did not score.
The 200 medley relay of Morgan Morcher-Thaller, Rachel Hopkins, Isabel Quimba and Natalie Wood had the Panthers' highest finish, placing 19th (1:58.11).
Girls basketball team to face Hawks
The girls basketball team will play its final home game of the season Friday, Feb. 22, against 16th-seeded Hartley in the second round of the Division I district tournament.
The winner will face fourth-seeded Watterson or 20th-seeded Pickerington North in a district semifinal Wednesday, Feb. 27, at a site to be determined. The district final is March 2 at Ohio Dominican.
The 13th-seeded Panthers defeated 24th-seeded Westerville North 53-42 in a first-round game Feb. 16 at home.
Darby started fast, leading 21-6 after the first quarter, but its lead was whittled to 36-31 entering the fourth quarter before the Panthers pulled away to improve to 18-5.
Sydney Wyngarden had 19 points, Annie Rauch scored 18 and Sophia Iosue and Jenna Rasul scored six apiece.
Boys basketball team preps for postseason
The boys basketball team had a three-game winning streak snapped with a 56-28 loss to host Bradley in its regular-season finale Feb. 15.
The Panthers had beaten Olentangy Berlin 45-26 on Feb. 5, Thomas Worthington 61-58 on Feb. 8 and Jonathan Alder 47-44 on Feb. 12 before falling to the Jaguars.
Darby is 6-16 overall heading into its Division I district tournament opener Saturday, Feb. 23, at fourth-seeded Olentangy Liberty. The Panthers are seeded 40th of 47 teams.
The winner will play 39th-seeded Licking Heights in the second round March 1 at the home of the higher seed.
Andrew Patrick had 12 points and Mehki Evans scored eight against Bradley, as the Panthers finished 3-11 in the OCC-Cardinal to place seventh behind the champion Jaguars (14-0).
Against Jonathan Alder, Kyle Miller had 18 points and Parker Hambel and Blake Horvath scored eight apiece.
Below are the coming schedules for the Darby bowling and gymnastics teams:
Feb. 22 -- Division I girls sectional at HP Lanes. Top 16 teams and top 16 individuals not on qualifying teams advance to district March 2 at HP Lanes.
Feb. 23 -- Division I boys sectional at HP Lanes. Top 16 teams and top 16 individuals not on qualifying teams advance to district March 2 at HP Lanes.
Feb. 23 -- District meet at Worthington Kilbourne. Top three teams advance to state team meet March 1 at Bradley and top eight finishers in each event and the all-around advance to state individual meet March 2 at Bradley.