The Pickerington High School North boys basketball team wrapped up practice Feb. 26 with a drill called "Win the Game," in which all players shoot free throws during a simulated late-game situation.
A made free throw means a point for the Panthers, and a miss gives the opponent two points.
With the score tied at 20 and every player having been to the line, the team got to pick the shooter who would win the "game."
The almost unanimous choice was Jack Sawyer, North's 6-foot-5 sophomore forward, leading scorer and first-team all-district honoree who recently committed to play football at Ohio State.
He drained both free throws, then calmly walked into the lane with a smile on his face to cheers from his teammates as the scoreboard showed a 22-20 win.
That Sawyer's teammates immediately had such confidence in him reflected the season he has had. He was averaging 22.2 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists through 24 games, as the fifth-seeded Panthers were 20-4 before playing 10th-seeded Canal Winchester in a Division I district semifinal March 6 at Groveport.
"This year has been very good for me offensively and defensively," Sawyer said. "This team expected a bigger role for me this season and I felt I was ready for it. I wanted that role. It wasn't my place to have a role like that last year, but coach (Jason) Bates told me I'm the guy. I love that. I just want to make the team have the best season we can."
North advanced with a 71-25 win over 41st-seeded Briggs in a second-round home game March 1. Sawyer, who had a game-high 19 points against the Bruins, had 14 games with both double-digit points and rebounds before March 6.
He scored a career-high 31 points Dec. 1 in a season-opening 89-58 home win over Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph in the All-Ohio Nike Hoops Showcase and had 14 games with at least 20 points before March 6, including four in a row to finish the regular season.
One of his most dominant games came Jan. 18 at Pickerington Central, when Sawyer posted 28 points, 12 rebounds, two assists and two blocks in a 65-55 win that ultimately led to the Panthers and Tigers sharing the OCC-Ohio Division championship.
"The proof is what he does in the games, but it's really about every day in practice," Bates said. "He's had some monster practices. He's been so good lately. It's been a pleasure to coach him because we've seen his growth."
Although Sawyer committed to play football for the Buckeyes on Feb. 3, he said he actually took up basketball first by a year when he was in second grade and his family briefly lived in North Carolina.
Sawyer's father, Lyle, played college football at Findlay and his mother, Michelle, was an integral part of the 1990 Division I state championship girls basketball team at Pickerington under longtime coach Dave Butcher before playing in college at Bowling Green.
The North-Canal Winchester winner plays second-seeded Hilliard Bradley or 17th-seeded Thomas Worthington in a district final Saturday, March 9, at Greater Columbus Convention Center. The district champion faces Dublin Coffman, Newark, Olentangy Orange or Whitehall in a regional semifinal Wednesday, March 13, at Ohio Dominican.
The regional final is March 16.
North lost to Coffman 72-66 on Jan. 8.
"We've had a good year, but I'm not satisfied," Sawyer said. "I just want us to go as far as we can in the tournament."
Girls basketball coach looks to solid future
Despite an 8-15 season that ended with six consecutive losses, girls basketball coach Silas Williams is confident that the pieces are in place for improvement next season.
Junior forward Saige Glover, a first-team all-league and third-team all-district honoree, averaged team highs in points (13.3) and rebounds (8.5). According to Williams, several underclassmen also showed growth throughout the season, including sophomores Malea Bess (guard), Alsaysha Grant (guard) and Dru Ultican (forward/guard) and freshman guard Adi Dorman.
"Saige played very well in the paint and she took some more 3 (-pointers) this year. That's a piece of her game she can continue to develop to make herself even more of an all-around threat," Williams said. "Malea had a good year. I like the number of shots she took; she got more confident in herself during the season. Alsaysha got some invaluable experience for the future. Adi took more command of that point-guard spot."
Seeded 20th in the 45-team Division I district tournament, North lost at fourth-seeded Watterson 37-31 in the second round Feb. 22.
Senior point guard Mickale Bates, an Ohio Christian recruit, averaged 6.8 points and was named second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district. Senior guard Avery Hart, who will play soccer at Capital, was honorable mention all-league.
"We started defining who we are and who we want to be. Sure, we'd have taken some more wins, but we saw growth," Williams said. "We have a lot of pieces in place. The leadership is good. We need to make sure the summer is productive, that everybody works hard to make us better."
Wrestlers struggle at district tourney
With two of its top competitors sidelined because of skin issues, the wrestling team won just two of its 18 matches in a Division I Central/Northeast/Northwest District tournament March 1 and 2 at Mentor.
Sophomore Erik Gomez (113 pounds) and freshman Braden Watts (195) each went 1-2 and combined to earn two points for North, which finished 38th behind champion Lakewood St. Edward (287) as 44 teams scored. The top four finishers in each weight class advanced to the state tournament that runs Thursday, March 7, through Saturday, March 9, at Ohio State.
Also competing for the Panthers were seniors Elijah Clarke (152, 0-2) and Will Herdman (145, 0-2), sophomores Rajesh Bomjan (120, 0-2), Kyle Coffey (160, 0-2) and Tyce Neu (heavyweight, 0-2) and freshman Macston Reed (106, 0-2).
Senior Elliot Mahaffey (170) and junior Josiah George (182) did not compete at district. George finished 29-9 and Mahaffey went 27-7.
Clarke finished 23-13.
North went 2-3 in the OCC-Ohio to finish fourth behind champion Lancaster (5-0).
Bowling season ends at district
The boys and girls bowling teams' seasons came to an end March 2 in the Division I district tournament at HP Lanes.
The boys team finished 12th (3,653) of 16 teams, behind champion Westerville Central (4,243). The top three teams and top three individuals not on qualifying teams advanced to state Saturday, March 9, at Wayne Webb's Columbus Bowl.
Steven Vance bowled a 583 three-game series to tie for 24th to lead North. He was followed by Ethan Yurko (45th, 558), Kyle Mace (58th, 540), Justin Turnau (70th, 506), Alex Zumock (86th, 327) and Caden Thieken (tied for 102nd, 155).
Alana Robinson was the girls team's only district qualifier. She finished 68th (407) of 104 individuals.