Pickerington High School North softball coach Sarah Looker emphasized many aspects of the game during the preseason, but the area in which the Panthers have shown the most improvement from last season arguably has been their defense.
After committing 59 errors in 2018, when they went 12-12 and advanced to a Division I district semifinal, the Panthers had just 12 defensive miscues through nine games this season. Half of those came in one game, an 8-7 loss to Westerville North on April 3.
That prowess has kept North in the vast majority of its games thus far. Seven of their first nine games were decided by three runs or fewer, with the Panthers winning three of them. The only exceptions were an 8-4 win at Hamilton Township on April 4 and a 15-5, six-inning loss to Pickerington Central to begin OCC-Ohio Division play April 10.
North was 4-5 overall and 0-2 in the OCC-Ohio before playing Lancaster on April 16.
According to shortstop Carley Auten, the team's defensive performance is even more impressive when changes in position are taken into account. Auten, a University of Akron commit, said her natural position is second base, which is where she played last season.
Megan Ebbrecht moved from shortstop to third base.
"We're working better together and not individually," Auten said. "We have to work on our offense more, but the defense is coming together. Several people are not playing in their normal positions. I'm proud of how we've progressed.
"It's a longer throw to put some more energy into (to first base from shortstop than second), but it's not that much different. We work on our defense a lot. It's done well."
The Panthers averaged 6.6 runs and 10.3 hits through nine games.
Looker lauded her team's commitment to defense and how it responded from the loss to Westerville North, calling that game a "stumbling block."
"We learned a lot and got better from it," Looker said. "We've taken care of the defense. Our pitchers (Gina Carlini and Morgan Ebbrecht) are doing very well. We just have to continue our offensive attack in order to score more runs. We made some (defensive) changes before the season and the girls accepted those roles and responsibilities. They've owned it. That's been the biggest difference-maker for us."
Auten led the team in home runs through nine games with three, something she said was unexpected.
"I wasn't thinking as much about being a power hitter as just getting on base and trying to hit the ball on the gap," Auten said. "Home runs are happy accidents, I guess. I usually just to try to hit the ball on the ground and see what it gets me. Maybe I can beat the ball out with my speed or hit into the gap somewhere."
Carlini and Morgan Ebbrecht have alternated in the circle, sometimes during the same game. Carlini pitched four-plus shutout innings April 11 at Gahanna before the Lions scored all three of their runs in that inning to win 3-0.
According to Looker, sharing time has helped both players.
"Both of them know and realize it will be a tag-team effort. That's what we feed off of," Looker said. "We feed off Gina doing well and (Ebbrecht) doing well. I think it's absolutely huge for them. They have relied on each other and our defense is willing to step up and do what they have to do. This group has made a solid commitment to do whatever it takes to get the job done."
Girls lacrosse team thriving with balance
Led by three double-digit goal scorers, the girls lacrosse team was 6-2 overall and 1-1 in the OCC-Central before playing Hilliard Davidson on April 16. That is the Panthers' best start in coach Christine Miller's three seasons, and she attributed the team's early success to better performance as a unit.
"Our offensive unit as a whole has been more productive and has worked more effectively this year as a unit," Miller said. "They are sharing the ball and talking to each other. They are playing like a team (and) I expect them to play as a team. ... I have a great team of leaders this year and I am very excited about our success so far this year. We are off to a great start and we need to keep working hard and remain focused on our end-of-the-season goals."
Sophie Zimmerman had 29 goals through seven games to lead North, ahead of Elise Drager and Lexie Johnson with 11 each. The Panthers averaged 12.4 goals through eight games, with their season high coming in a 21-4 win over Hilliard Bradley on April 8.
North was shut out 18-0 by league rival and four-time defending Division I state champion Upper Arlington on April 11 but rebounded to post a 15-10 win at Centerville on April 13.
Through eight games, the loss to UA was the only contest in which the Panthers failed to score at least 10 goals.
"We are a more balanced team and we are able to transition the ball more effectively," Miller said. "We have focused our energy on playing as a team and for our team. This is a great group of young ladies and they have worked very hard to get to this point."
Track schedules to create opportunities
The track and field teams will split up each of the next two weekends, starting Thursday, April 18, when some athletes will compete in the Fulton Relays at Lancaster.
The next night, others will take part in the Wildcat Invitational at Westerville South.
On April 26, North will participate in both the Milt Will Invitational at Canal Winchester and the Ranger Invitational at Hamilton Township.
That continues a trend from recent seasons in which North coaches have scheduled multiple meets for the same weekend in late April or early May.
"We like to develop talent as much as we can and give the kids every opportunity to compete," girls coach Jim Langenderfer said.
"Especially if somebody's injured or sick, we need to have depth. You only get so many entries in a meet and being in more meets means more chances for our athletes. We'll have to make decisions later in the season on who will compete (in the OCC-Ohio meet and the postseason) and we want to have as much to work with as we can."