If a few things sound familiar for the Pickerington High School North boys tennis team as the season gets underway, that is for good reason.
The Panthers won their fifth OCC-Ohio Division championship in seven years last season, sharing the title with Gahanna and Pickerington Central, and their first two league matches this year were against their co-champions.
And as has been the case with the girls team the past three seasons, a player named Alcala is at the top of the lineup.
Freshman Cole Alcala began the year at first singles for North, which was 3-2 before beginning league play April 9 at home against Central. The Panthers have two seniors, two juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen vying for playing time.
"Cole is our clear-cut first singles player. He is a very talented freshman," 16th-year coach Brian Hoff said. "Our top goal again is to defend the OCC (-Ohio) title. That will definitely be a challenge after losing four very talented seniors to graduation, all of whom had been on varsity multiple years. We are a very young team this year. Our new guys are very energetic and have lots of potential. These guys are up for the challenge."
Cole's older sister, Cassie, is a three-time Division I state qualifier who committed to the University of Toledo in late March. The junior was state runner-up in singles in 2017.
According to Hoff, seniors Balakrishna Brahmandam and Ethan Reece and sophomores Theo Miller and Ben Starrett will compete for playing time at second and third singles and first doubles.
"All of them are very close in their level of play and on any given day, any of them can beat the others," Hoff said.
"We're looking for a combination that will make us competitive at singles and a very strong doubles team."
Rounding out the roster are juniors Aaron Askew and Brady Hertl and freshman Kevin Wang.
North opened March 28 with a 3-2 home loss to Worthington Kilbourne but rebounded with consecutive wins over visiting Logan Elm (3-2 on April 1) and host Groveport (5-0 on April 2). The Panthers lost 5-0 at Olentangy on April 3 but beat visiting Canal Winchester 5-0 the next day.
Last season, North went 8-7 overall and 4-1 in the OCC-Ohio. The Panthers lost their only district qualifier from a year ago to graduation in Grant Schroeder.
"The (league) race should be interesting this year. (Central, Gahanna and North) all lost multiple players to graduation," Hoff said.
"We aren't a good team yet, but we absolutely can become a very good one. It will take a lot of hard work, sweat, focus and determination over the next six weeks to accomplish this, but I feel like this group can achieve amazing things this season."
Girls track team includes versatility
Even with less turnout than last season, 16th-year girls track and field coach Jim Langenderfer thinks his team could be more talented overall than it was a year ago, when the Panthers were represented in three events at state.
Two state qualifiers return in seniors Jemeila Hunter and Celeste Pierce, both of whom were on the fourth-place 400-meter relay and sixth-place 800 relay. The other participants on both relays graduated, as did pole vaulter Jessie Kinder, who finished 13th at state and now competes at Murray State.
"The team is a bit smaller, but a lot more talented just from the standpoint of our athleticism," Langenderfer said.
"We have a solid corps of girls back, but it will take time to fill some of our events where we lost girls. We have a lot of sprinters but not as many in the high jump, but we have a lot of girls who can be in several different events."
North opened March 23 by finishing fourth (70 points) of seven teams in the Hammond Relays at Central as defending Division I state champion Gahanna won (139).
Hunter won the 100 (12.54 seconds) and 200 (26.16) and helped the 400 relay to first place (50.45) with senior Mickale Bates and sophomores Mayson Bates and Amara Okpalaoka.
Senior Lauren Norwood, who will compete in both track and field and volleyball at Roberts Wesleyan, will participate in hurdles, jumps and sprints.
Mickale Bates has signed to play basketball at Ohio Christian.
Senior Avery Hart, a regional qualifier last year in the pole vault, will play soccer at Capital.
According to Langenderfer, other sprinters will include senior Desiree Settle, junior Emma Asare, sophomore Serenity Mason and freshman Ayress Waugh, who also is a thrower.
Other expected contributors include juniors Madisen Baker (throws), Brianna Bowden (distance), Elizabeth Martin (distance), Naaila Norgan (jumps, sprints) and Payton Tackett (jumps, sprints), sophomores Sarah Cherryhomes (pole vault), Emily Harness (distance), Emily Snyder (distance) and Rachel Spoelstra (throws) and freshmen Faith Bittinger (throws), Evy Donley (hurdles, sprints), Chelsea Kwarteng (hurdles), Ellie Riekert (hurdles), Gina Wetherell (distance) and Bryn Woodruff (distance).
"It's a good group with a mix of veterans and promising younger girls, which is always good to see," Langenderfer said.
"They're flexible and adaptable. It's just about being athletic overall and having a lot of athletic girls."
Four state qualifiers back for boys team
Four of the boys track and field team's eight Division I state qualifiers returned, equally split between distance and sprint events.
Juniors Matt Duvall and Harper Moore are back after helping the 3,200 relay to sixth place at state with 2018 graduates Ashwin Briggs -- who now runs at the U.S. Naval Academy -- and Ethan Cale, and senior Jalaun Covington and junior Enrique Cabotage return after being on the 15th-place 400 relay.
Duvall also placed seventh at state in the 3,200, the same finish he recorded in the state cross country meet in November, and Moore was eighth in the 1,600.
North opened March 23 by finishing fourth (76) of seven teams in the Hammond Relays as Lancaster won (121). Winning were the 800 sprint medley of Covington, juniors Devin McShan and Zemen Siyoum and sophomore Steven McElroy (1:35.92) and the distance medley of Duvall, Moore, junior Jackson Paas and sophomore Ben Dinsmore (11:15.48).
"My initial impressions of this team are that they are a great combination of young, new guys with some talented veterans all working very hard in practice with a strong desire to improve," 12th-year coach Dave Spring said.
"Our strengths will be our distance, long sprints and hurdles. We're making nice gains in field events, throws, jumps and short sprints."
According to Spring, other top contributors will include seniors Caleb Jones (jumps), Jake Prestileo (distance) and Shawn Shuster (pole vault), juniors Adrien Clarke (jumps), Conner Daniel (pole vault), Daniel Newman (distance), Andrew Pinkins (throws), Lawson Vaughn (throws) and Zhane Wallace (long jump), sophomores Nick Coughlin (throws), Michael Martello (throws), Alex Perez (throws) and Nick Whitehead (distance) and freshman Hunter Hoskins (jumps).
Below are the coming schedules for the North baseball, boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse, softball, boys tennis, track & field and boys volleyball teams:
*April 12 -- Home vs. Gahanna
April 13 -- At St. Charles
*April 15 -- At Lancaster
*April 17 -- Home vs. Lancaster
*April 11 -- Home vs. Upper Arlington
*April 15 -- At Hilliard Davidson
*April 11 -- Upper Arlington at Tremont Elementary
April 13 -- At Centerville
*April 16 -- Home vs. Hilliard Davidson
*April 11 -- At Gahanna
*April 15 -- At Lancaster
*April 17 -- Home vs. Reynoldsburg
*April 11 -- At Gahanna
April 15 -- Home vs. Dublin Coffman
*April 16 -- At Lancaster
April 17 -- At Granville
TRACK & FIELD
April 12 -- New Albany Invitational
April 16 -- At Grove City
*April 11 -- At Pickerington Central
April 13 -- Spike for Tykes at Mount Union
*April 16 -- Home vs. Dublin Coffman