The bottom part of the Pickerington High School Central softball team's lineup often consists entirely of sophomores, but that hasn't caught some players by surprise.
"We've known since we were in junior high that the 2021 class is a strong class," junior catcher Zoie Smith said. "They're pure athletes. They have super raw talent, especially now that they're working with the varsity players. It's shining through."
Second-year coach Jenny Young and her players hope that talent, blended with strong junior and senior classes that include three college recruits or commits, helps bring Central its second OCC-Ohio Division championship in three seasons and its first Division I district title since 2013.
The Tigers were 3-2 before playing Olentangy on April 2 and begin OCC-Ohio play Wednesday, April 10, at Pickerington North. They finished second (7-3) in the league last season behind Lancaster (8-2).
Senior shortstop Sophia Slack is a Walsh recruit. Junior pitcher and first baseman Anna Feil is a Georgia Southern commit and Smith, who had a team-high 11 home runs last year to 10 to Feil and nine for Slack, has committed to Indiana.
The talented sophomore class includes Tori Angles (OF), Tristen Keuchler (1B/3B), Kenzie O'Neal (P/OF), Kassidy Stanley (OF) and Sara Tailford (2B/SS).
"We have pretty much all the tools necessary to go really deep (in the postseason)," Young said. "We have speed, we have power hitters and consistency. Our pitching is solid. We're trying to get all the pistons to fire at the same time.
"It's really been a passing of the torch with those older girls helping (the younger players) get to that next level and learn what those expectations are. It's a very symbiotic type of relationship, a lot of give and take."
Last season, the Tigers finished 17-6 overall and reached a district final before losing to Westerville Central 2-0.
Central opened this season with a 12-4 home loss to Cardington on March 23 and routed Worthington Kilbourne 19-0 in five innings later that day. After an 8-7 home loss to Lakewood on March 26, the Tigers bounced back with a 17-4 win at Groveport on March 28 and a 7-2 win at Hartley on March 29.
Smith had two home runs as part of a 4-for-6, six-RBI performance against Groveport. Slack and freshman Colleen Bare (3B/SS/OF) also homered against the Cruisers, and Keuchler had a two-run homer in the second inning at Hartley.
"I am liking my season so far," said Smith, who admitted that one of her goals is to make first-team all-state. "I just really want to get girls in. If I have girls on (base) in front of me, that's my whole job. This is a season where I'm not focusing on numbers or anything. I'm just focusing on helping the team as best I can."
Rounding out the roster are seniors Autumn Brock (OF), Bella Rupright (1B) and Ally Thornberry (OF), juniors Jasmine Moreland (3B/2B), Nicole Stephens (OF) and Taylor Whalen (OF) and freshman Ellie Tressler (C/3B).
Stephens has committed to play basketball at Akron.
"Central has certainly been flooded with a lot of talent. We're very deep. It's a blessing," Young said. "They all compete and they all have an understanding of what it means to be in this uniform and continue to raise the bar."
Baseball team sets lofty goals
First-year baseball coach Colin Wilson gave each of his players a goal sheet during the preseason, asking them to name their top three goals for both themselves and the team and how they would go about achieving them.
Two big-picture themes emerged, but Wilson is reminding his players to focus on the day-to-day grind at the same time.
"Winning a league title is extremely important to them. The majority of them also listed (getting) past the (Division I) district championship game," Wilson said. "As for my personal expectations, I tell the guys that in order for us to achieve their goals we need to get better every single day. In order for us to get better as a program every day, we have to come to the ballpark every day with the mindset that no other team is going to outwork us."
Four starters return from last year's team that finished 15-10 overall, losing to New Albany 2-1 in a Division I district final, and went 10-5 in the OCC-Ohio to share the league championship with Lancaster.
Seniors DeWayne Carter (1B/DH), Caleb Gillaspie (P/INF/OF) and Justin Maynard (P/3B/OF) and junior Michael Shinohara (P) are returning starters. Other returnees include senior Cayden Wirkiowski (P/OF) and junior Cooper Martell (1B/DH).
Central is 2-0 entering its league opener Friday, April 5, at North. The Tigers opened March 26 with a 5-2 home win over Bloom-Carroll and edged Frankfort Adena 2-1 on March 29 at V.A. Memorial Stadium.
Wilson, a 1997 graduate of Pickerington, replaced Ray Noe, who now coaches at IMG Academy in Florida. Wilson was an assistant coach at Teays Valley the past eight seasons.
Rounding out the roster are seniors Maxwell Rumardo (INF), Jayr Scott (OF) and George Tressler (OF), juniors Drew Bookman (SS), Quinten Collins (OF), Seth Crandall (P/INF), Jack Lukich (2B), Dustin Morehart (OF), Nick Mosley (OF) and Logan Trombley (3B) and sophomores Seth Kogge (P/INF/C) and Nick Mosley (OF).
"I reiterate on a daily basis that each player has a role or job to do within the program," Wilson said. "It probably will not be the same thing every day, but they need to come laser-focused each day on getting better and embracing their job for that day."
Volleyball team trying to learn, build
Boys volleyball coach Luke Rininger wants to apply some lessons learned last year to this year's team, and a two-match trip to Chicago to start the season was part of that.
After going 6-15 last year and winning only one non-league match, Central opened March 23 with a 25-19, 25-14 win over host Chicago Victoria Soto and a 25-20, 26-24 win over Horizon Science Academy in which the Tigers erased a 24-18 deficit in the second game.
Rininger, whose team was 6-0 overall and 1-0 in the OCC-Ohio before playing Dublin Coffman on April 2, called the first out-of-state trip in his eight-year tenure "a team bonding event."
"Last year, we had a lot of talent, but the guys didn't always play together well. As a coach, that was on me not doing enough team bonding," Rininger said. "This trip forced all the guys to know people they didn't know before. I think it worked. They had a blast. We debriefed at the end about what went well and what didn't. I think they bought in. We'll see how it translates onto the court for some of these tougher matches."
Central returns several key contributors in seniors Coleton Landis (middle hitter), Nathan Lee (defensive specialist/outside hitter), Zach Nestor (outside hitter) and Jason Orr (libero). According to Rininger, Orr recently suffered a meniscus injury and is expected to miss about a month.
"The good thing is we have four or five guys vying for (Orr's) position," Rininger said. "It's keeping them competitive with each other. We're not just relying on one person with nobody to take their spot."
Rounding out the roster are seniors Moiz Arain (defensive specialist) and Christian Hall (defensive specialist), juniors Kaden LaMarr (right-side hitter), Jared McLean (middle blocker), Chance Oakley (defensive specialist) and Shaun Simpson (defensive specialist), sophomores Gary Garrison (middle blocker/right-side hitter) and Brandon Jones (defensive specialist/right-side hitter) and freshman Landon Tackett (setter).
Central won its league opener, defeating visiting Reynoldsburg 25-18, 25-12, 25-12 on March 28, and swept a home quad March 30 with wins over Eastmoor Academy (25-15, 25-15), Northland (25-12, 24-26, 25-18) and Whetstone (25-4, 25-13).
Last season, the Tigers went 5-7 in the OCC-Ohio.
Below are the coming schedules for the Central baseball, boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse, softball, boys tennis, track & field and boys volleyball teams:
*April 5 -- At Pickerington North
April 6 -- Home vs. Olentangy Orange and Thomas Worthington
*April 8 -- Home vs. Pickerington North
April 9 -- At Hartley
*April 10 -- Home vs. Lancaster
*April 4 -- Home vs. Upper Arlington
*April 8 -- At Dublin Coffman
*April 4 -- Upper Arlington at Tremont Elementary School
*April 9 -- Home vs. Dublin Coffman
April 6 -- Home vs. Central Crossing and Westerville South
*April 10 -- At Pickerington North
April 4 -- At New Albany
*April 9 -- At Pickerington North
TRACK & FIELD
April 6 -- Stingel Invitational at Pickerington North
April 9 -- Home vs. Gahanna
*April 4 -- Home vs. Hilliard Davidson
*April 8 -- Home vs. Gahanna
*April 9 -- At New Albany