The Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team enters its fourth consecutive Division I regional tournament with a 25-1 record and having just won its seventh district title in the last eight years, a run that began in the state championship season of 2012.
Despite that run of success, one the Tigers hope includes their second consecutive regional championship this weekend, coach Eric Krueger said the team still feels like it has something to prove at every step.
"It's a chip-on-our-shoulder type of group," Krueger said after third-seeded Central edged seventh-seeded and OCC-Ohio Division rival Reynoldsburg 50-49 in a district final March 9 at Greater Columbus Convention Center.
"For us to get here and win our fourth district title in a row is a real credit to all of these guys. We only have four kids that played any varsity last year and one of those kids, (guard) Tahleik Walker, played junior varsity half the year. We really only have Coleton Landis, Jahvon Garcia, Jaidon Lipscomb and Tahleik who actually played varsity last year. They stuck with it and we have younger guys who have grown up a little bit. They believe in what we do and always find a way to win. In the tournament, you just have to find a way."
Garcia had 14 points, Garner Wallace scored 12 and Landis added 11 points and 10 rebounds in addition to a key steal in the final 10 seconds to help thwart the Raiders' hopes of snapping a nine-game losing streak in the rivalry.
Landis missed a free throw with 1.9 seconds left after Reynoldsburg had led 47-45 and 49-48 late, and after both teams used their final timeouts, the Raiders' Ben Fort missed a heave from just inside half-court as time expired.
It was only the third game of the season decided by single digits for the Tigers, who will play Olentangy Liberty in a regional semifinal Thursday, March 14, at Ohio Dominican. It also followed a scare in a district semifinal March 6 at Gahanna, where Central trailed 26th-seeded Big Walnut 21-20 at halftime but rallied behind 18 points from Garcia and 13 from Landis to win 49-39.
"We've taken a lot of pride on our defense and it showed (March 9)," Landis said. "It boiled down to our size and strength. That's all our coaches have been preaching. That's what will take us back to (state). We just want to get to the rim and run our sets and limit our turnovers."
Wallace's layup with 1:04 left put Central ahead 48-47. The Raiders' Xavier Prince made two free throws 24 seconds later to make it 49-48, but Garcia hit two foul shots with 36.9 seconds left to give the Tigers the lead for good.
"I didn't necessarily have a feeling (about this game), but I knew it would be tough," Garcia said. "We played together, played hard and played smart."
The Central-Liberty winner will play Newark or Pickerington North in the regional final Saturday, March 16, at Ohio Dominican, with the regional champion advancing to a state semifinal March 22 at Ohio State.
The Tigers split their two OCC-Ohio games with North during the regular season, winning 80-67 on Dec. 7 and losing 65-55 on Jan. 18, and beat Newark 51-38 on Feb. 9.
Central has won 13 consecutive games since losing to North.
"(Winning another district championship) is really important to me," Landis said. "But we're not done yet."
Wrestling team fell short of top goal
With three wrestlers who won 30 or more matches and nine Division I district qualifiers, wrestling coach Jason Allen called this season "good."
He stopped short of saying it was "great" only because Central was not represented at the state tournament held March 7-9 at Ohio State.
"We definitely improved throughout the year, but it's hard to say it was a great year only because we didn't reach our ultimate goals," Allen said.
"When you look back, we had a lot of solid performances. All nine of our (district qualifiers) were close to getting to state. The guys who are coming back will continue to develop."
Senior Silas Pearson had a team-best 40-10 record at 182 pounds. Junior Bo Branson went 34-11 at 120 and finished fifth at district March 2 at Hilliard Darby.
He was a state alternate but did not compete at that level for the second consecutive season.
The Tigers' two other wrestlers with 30 or more wins were senior Trevor Mangahas (126, 31-8) and junior Marcus Zullo (152, 30-9).
District qualifiers who are eligible to return are junior Holden Walters (132, 18-18), sophomore Garrett Meek (heavyweight, 26-11) and freshman Kaleb Mangahas (106, 22-11).
"We owe that development throughout the lineup to the assistant coaches. We have a lightweight coach, a middleweight coach and a heavyweight coach and that goes a long way," Allen said. "We've done that for the past five years or so and seen good results across the board. Our middleweights have really been solid the past few years. We work them hard and it shows.
"The biggest thing we want to build on next year is depth. We're still not near where we want to be with total numbers (21 in the program this season). Once we lose seniors, it's the next man up. We've had a lot of talent to step up, but having 21 guys for 14 (weight) classes, we'd like a little more."