Balanced scoring and rebounding were two keys that helped the Pickerington High School North boys basketball team win its second Division I district championship in three seasons, but perhaps a less tangible reason was a chance to atone.
After fifth-seeded North defeated 17th-seeded Thomas Worthington 72-60 on March 9 at Greater Columbus Convention Center, a district semifinal loss to Mount Vernon last season, when the Panthers were the top seed, was firmly on players' and coaches' minds.
"One of my favorite quotes at this time of year is, 'It's a good time to play great,'" coach Jason Bates said. "I keep harping on last year, but it's the best tool I have to use with this team. You either learn from the past or you repeat it."
After routing 10th-seeded Canal Winchester 68-36 in a district semifinal March 6 at Groveport, North avoided any chance of a letdown against Thomas thanks to four double-digit scorers and a dominating 30-13 edge in rebounding.
Jack Sawyer had 22 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, Idris Lawrence and Chris Scott each had 12 points and Casey George added 11 points, seven of which came consecutively between the first and second quarters to help North build an eight-point lead.
"We played to our strengths," said Sawyer, who also had a game-high 26 points against Canal Winchester. "We might not have played our greatest (March 9), but we played to our strengths. We're a very balanced team. Everybody contributed."
North, which set a program record for wins, was 22-4 before playing Newark in a regional semifinal March 13 at Ohio Dominican.
Lawrence and Scott combined for a few important plays to keep the lead in double digits in the second half. Lawrence assisted Scott as he was falling down for a driving layup and Lawrence had a powerful drive in the lane for a layup on the next possession to make it 42-29 halfway through the third quarter, and a Lawrence steal led to a Scott dunk with five minutes left for a 51-37 lead.
Thomas was within 10 points only briefly the rest of the way.
"Whatever we have to do, we do it," Scott said. "Jack might be getting doubled or have a difficult time scoring and it's up to us to do whatever we have to do. We take a lot of pride in that. We find ways to crash to the rim and it worked for us early and throughout the game."
Jalen Sullinger had 33 points to lead the Cardinals, who had upset second-seeded Hilliard Bradley 46-41 in a district semifinal March 6.
"He's just dangerous," Scott said. "He got what he wanted early so we had to key in and slow him down. We couldn't let him get into a rhythm."
The Panthers entered the regional on a 10-game winning streak, with their last loss coming against Olentangy Liberty, 75-64 on Jan. 26.
The North-Newark winner will play Liberty or Pickerington Central in a regional final Saturday, March 16, at Ohio Dominican, with the regional champion advancing to a state semifinal March 22 at Ohio State.
North split its two OCC-Ohio Division games with Central during the regular season, losing 80-67 on Dec. 7 and winning 65-55 on Jan. 18.
"This feels really good. It's tough to control my emotions," Scott said. "We felt like we let each other down last year. This year, we really made sure that we did everything we could to get back. We all played for each other and the coaches and for Pickerington North as a program. We really, really, really wanted this. For us to get this, it's really special."
Bowling coach hopes success continues
All of the girls bowling team's top four scorers are eligible to return, including Division I district qualifier Alana Robinson, and two of the top five on the boys squad are expected to return for coach Mike Rossi.
Robinson, a sophomore, averaged 142.4 pins per game to lead the girls team to a 3-9 overall record. She finished 68th (407) of 104 individuals at district March 2 at HP Lanes.
Juniors Kathryn VanCourt (132.4) and Sienna Reedus (118.7) were second and third on the girls team in average, followed by sophomore Evy Vance (108.2).
"They were all new to the team, except for Alana, and every one of them did fine," Rossi said. "Kathryn ended up having a pretty good season. Next year could be really fun with all of them coming back. They love the sport and they're going to work at getting better."
Led by senior Justin Turnau, whose 201.8 average was eighth-best in the entire Central Ohio High School Bowling Conference, the boys team went 9-3 overall but fell short of the COHSBC-B and OCC-Ohio championships.
Senior Steven Vance (198.9) was second on the team in average, followed by freshman Ethan Yurko (178.6), sophomore Alex Zumock (174.1) and senior Kyle Mace (167.1).
The Panthers are 73-9 over the last five seasons.
"Justin and Alex having the seasons they did was huge for us," Rossi said. "Alex bowled really well. Justin came out of nowhere and bowled great. Having a junior varsity team really helped us. (Junior) Caden (Thieken) and (senior) Jacob Dollmatsch came up big for us at sectional and district. The guys competed well all year and never panicked. Kyle Mace picked up the pace at the end of the year. We'll miss those guys, but hopefully we can reload."