After overcoming an injury-riddled regular season to earn a Division I district runner-up finish last winter, the Olentangy Liberty High School girls basketball team believed its chances of getting back to that level were much higher this year.
That's exactly what occurred.
With a 53-48 victory over ninth-seeded Hilliard Davidson on Feb. 27 in a district semifinal at Dublin Jerome, the 10th-seeded Patriots reached another district championship game.
Liberty lost to top-seeded and defending state champion Pickerington Central 56-21 on March 2 at Ohio Dominican to finish 18-8 overall.
"I'm so proud of this team," junior guard Kelly Levering said. "This (district final) means that all the doubts that anyone has ever had have been proven wrong. Last year's team has been sort of nicknamed 'the miracle team.' But this year isn't, because no matter what our record or seeding says, no one in our program could have honestly said that they were surprised that we made it to this game."
Liberty, which lost to Central 54-12 in a district final last season, trailed 18-0 by the end of the first quarter and 39-10 by halftime in the rematch.
Junior forward Teegan Pifher scored nine points and senior forward Abby Erickson added seven.
Against Davidson, the Patriots led 37-22 heading into the final period before holding off a rally as freshman guard Trinity Ramos made four free throws in the final minute.
Ramos finished with 11 points and Pifher, Erickson and junior guard Gina Santangelo each scored nine.
Pifher had averaged 17 points over the four previous games heading into the Davidson matchup.
Coach Sam Krafty was pleased with the development of Ramos, who averaged 6.1 points. Pifher, Ramos, Santangelo and Levering figure to lead the way next season as the Patriots look to remain one of the top teams in the district as well as in the OCC-Buckeye Division after they earned a runner-up finish at 8-2, behind Westerville South (10-0).
Pifher missed most of last season with an injury but averaged 12.5 points while receiving first-team all-league and third-team all-district honors.
"(Ramos') value is not showing up in the box score," Krafty said. "She only (had) 45 turnovers in (our first) 24 games. For a freshman to have that kind of a feel for the game, it's beyond her years. Pifher got off to a very slow start (this season) but around the holidays she started to kind of get it back to where she was before her injury."
Levering was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district, Ramos was special mention all-league and senior guard/wing player Jessie Barna was honorable mention all-league.
Barna and Erickson, who averaged 6.5 points, led a four-member senior class.
Santangelo averaged 4.2 points. Others eligible to return include junior forward Tatum Perkins, sophomore guards Sarah Balliett, Charlotte Hummell and Caitlin Splain and freshman guard Jordan Rich.
"We've been able to grow and learn from our past experiences to attain a sort of grit and poise that no one can take away from us," Levering said.
Hockey team again is district runner-up
For the second consecutive season, the hockey team had its season end with a loss to Jerome in the district final.
The third-seeded Patriots and top-seeded Celtics were scoreless March 2 at OhioHealth Ice Haus until Jerome's Evan Shea scored with 8 minutes, 25 seconds left in the second period. The goal stood as the Celtics won 1-0.
The loss gave Liberty a final record of 23-11-2-2 that included it finishing as runner-up to Jerome in the Capital Hockey Conference-Red and in the Blue Jackets Cup.
"I thought we came out in the third period (in the district final) and had some chances," coach Kevin Alexander said. "We're pretty blessed at Liberty with a lot of talent, but we had five senior guys that played (in the district final) and they were unbelievable."
The six-member senior class was led by defensemen Grant Bertges and Craig Lutwen and forwards Jack Bowden and Kevin Springfield.
Lutwen had 16 goals and made first-team all-CHC along with junior goaltender Andrew Vidrick, and both also were first-team all-CHC-Red. Bertges was honorable mention all-CHC-Red.
Vidrick made 22 saves in the district final.
"Last year I was a sophomore and was really just looking up to the seniors and trying to play for them," junior forward Korey Raymond said. "I'm just thinking next year how it would feel being a senior so I'm feeling that emotion. It's really fun. The coaches are great and they like to build us up really well."
Raymond scored two goals in a 3-2 victory over second-seeded Upper Arlington in a district semifinal Feb. 24.
Other juniors eligible to return include defensemen Keegan Pullins, Tim Casey and Max Turner and forward Aidan King.
Sophomores Ben Brown (forward), Nick Josefiak (forward/defenseman), Andy Keeler (goalie) and Isaac Moe (forward) and freshmen forwards Shane Flanagan, Gage Schlotterbeck and Pierceton VanGurp also should be key returnees.
"I think we'll be fine next year, but it sort of stinks and I feel bad for those seniors that came up one game short of what our goal was of winning this district," Alexander said.
Four wrestlers move on to state tourney
Four competitors will represent the wrestling team in the Division I state tournament Thursday, March 7, through Saturday, March 9, at Ohio State.
Lucas Uliano (126 pounds) is 27-7 and will open against Berea-Midpark's Caden Wendling (42-9). Jayce Fitzpatrick (145) is 30-9 and will face Cincinnati LaSalle's Darnai Heard (39-11).
Connor Brady (160) and Carson Kharchla (170) take 27-0 records into state.
Brady opens against Brecksville-Broadview Heights' Anthony Rizzo (24-15). Kharchla, who is the defending state champion, opens against Cincinnati West Clermont's Matt Lewis (32-7).
"Our kids did really well (at district) and I'm proud of them," coach Mark Marinelli said. "It's been a great year."
In the district tournament March 1 and 2 at Hilliard Darby, the Patriots scored 133 points to place second behind Dublin Coffman (170) as 36 teams scored.
Uliano was a state qualifier last season while living in Iowa.
"I felt like I wrestled pretty strong (at district)," he said. "(Winning district) feels good."
Brady beat Westerville South's Aaron Morton 14-2, Uliano defeated Lancaster's Jacob Reed 4-0 and Kharchla won by forfeit over Watkins Memorial's Cole Foor in their respective district finals. Fitzpatrick enters state after losing to Dublin Scioto's Daniel Segura 23-8 for the district title.
"I like the way I've been wrestling," Kharchla said. "In my semifinal match I didn't stay on my attacks, but I'm moving well and working my angles more than I've been doing recently so it's been good."
It was the first district title for Brady, who was fourth at state in 2016 and a third-place finisher in 2017. He did not compete in last year's postseason because of injury.
"I just have to keep wrestling hard and scoring a lot of points and that should be all I need to do," Brady said.
Finishing fifth at district was Kaden Tong (220). Ben Cox (195) and Brady Kuhn (heavyweight) went 2-2, Ethan Stamp (152) and Stephen Dirksmeier (182) went 1-2 and Austin Bensman (138) was 0-2.
Boys basketball team advances to semi
The fourth-seeded boys basketball team played 22nd-seeded Westerville North on March 6 in a Division I district semifinal at Centerburg.
If the Patriots won that game, they will play sixth-seeded Hilliard Davidson or 13th-seeded Olentangy in a district final Saturday, March 9, at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
The district champion will face Pickerington Central, Big Walnut, Reynoldsburg or Upper Arlington in a regional semifinal March 14 at Ohio Dominican.
With an 89-52 victory over 39th-seeded Licking Heights on March 1 in a second-round game, the Patriots improved to 20-4. Ben Roderick had 27 points, Mitchell Kershner scored 16, Joey Thatcher had 14 and Nick Nakasian added 13.