Moments after the Hartley High School boys basketball team met in the locker room following a 60-56 loss to Dayton Northridge on March 14, senior Payton Collins gingerly walked over to the training room.
Collins, in what was his first game after missing the previous 11 with a leg injury, did his best to keep his emotions together as he reflected on his team coming so close to winning its Division II regional semifinal at Kettering Fairmont.
An Eastern Kentucky football recruit, Collins contributed seven points and eight rebounds in the loss as the Hawks finished 15-10 overall.
"It was an amazing feeling getting back," Collins said. "I had a lot of memories. I'm glad I got to be a part of it."
According to coach Randy Kortokrax, the Hawks' game plan revolved around taking advantage of an opponent whose weakness is shooting.
Although Hartley limited the Polar Bears to going 23-for-64 from the floor, Northridge finished with 18 offensive rebounds.
"They made some shots, but really we just couldn't hold the boards and handle their pressure," Kortokrax said. "I told (the seniors) I'm disappointed I can't coach them anymore, but we knew what we had to do to stop them and we didn't do it. We can say the better team won because they enforced their will on us and we couldn't stop them."
Forward Morgan Safford, who had 14 points and 11 rebounds in the loss, led a six-member senior class.
The district Player of the Year averaged 24.8 points and led the Hawks to a district championship after they lost in a district final a season ago.
Safford scored 22 points as the fourth-seeded Hawks beat third-seeded DeSales 50-48 in a district final March 9 at Ohio Dominican. The Hawks finished fourth in the CCL at 3-5 as DeSales and Watterson both went 6-2 to share the title.
"(Northridge) was the fastest team we've played all year and they created some havoc," said Safford, whose team committed 23 turnovers.
"(I'll remember) just how close we were. I loved the senior class. They were like my brothers. I fought hard for them. It was a great run for Hartley, especially winning a district title over our rivals. I feel like we're leaving the program in a good place."
In addition to Safford and Collins, who averaged 11.1 points, the other seniors were forwards Braylon Mitchell, Ryan Heuser, Chase Albanese and Jordan Kirkbride.
Kirkbride, who will play football for Dartmouth, and Mitchell also missed time during the regular season with injuries.
Heuser was the team's third-leading scorer, averaging 6.5 points, and Albanese averaged 3.7.
Hartley had won eight of 10 games before playing Northridge, including beating 10th-seeded Eastmoor Academy 63-54 in the second round of the district tournament March 2 as junior guard Colby Rankin had 18 points.
A transfer from Gahanna last winter who began this season seeing limited action, Rankin should be one of the top returnees next season.
"It's a great experience," Rankin said. "At the beginning of the year, I wasn't seeing much varsity time and it was kind of frustrating for me, but I knew I was going to get my shot. Once I got my shot, I had to take advantage of it to help my team."
Others eligible to return include junior forward Kylan Kortokrax, junior guard Andrew Trainer, sophomore forwards Elijah English and Will Miller and freshman center/forward Javan Simmons.
"We've got to get some guys that can play some defense and offense," coach Kortokrax said. "We've got a lot of guys that can do one or the other.
"We kind of pieced this year together. We had a lot of adversity with Payton going down and Braylon going down. Our lineup from where we started changed toward the end of the season, but the kids kept sticking with it. Taking DeSales out in a district final kind of solidified that through the adversity you've got to stay together, and the good teams do."