The Pickerington Central girls tennis team has won nine of the past 11 OCC-Ohio Division championships and lost just two league matches in that time, both to its crosstown rival, Pickerington North.
While her teams have been talented every season, 21st-year coach Kelli Rings sees a special characteristic in this year's group.
"The desire to get better is huge. They have the mentality of spending a lot of time in the offseason to get better. Instead of just settling, they go for what they want," said Rings, whose team opens Thursday, Aug. 15, at Westerville Central. "Our better teams have come in focused and ready to work hard. The girls are pushing the girls in front of them and the ones at the top of the lineup feel the others working hard behind them. That's exactly what I want to see."
Senior Talia Dilello, juniors Ella Culver and Semmie Moore and sophomore Khandice Thomas return from last year's team that went 15-6 overall and 4-1 in the OCC-Ohio. Culver qualified for the Division I district tournament as part of a doubles team with her older sister, 2019 graduate Sophie Culver.
Dilello, Moore and Thomas begin the season at singles, and Ella Culver will be a fixture at first doubles.
"We have a good core group returning and a nice batch of girls coming in," Rings said. "Semmie has shown a lot of overall improvement and has worked a lot on her offense and footwork. She's upped the ante with her serves as well. Khandice went from doubles to singles last year and came on big-time. We have five girls on varsity for sure right now and five more duking it out for spots. Whoever makes it will end up in doubles."
According to Rings, Ashleigh Gilligan is skipping her senior season to concentrate on academics. She is taking medical classes at Columbus State.
Rounding out the roster are senior Katie Weidner, junior Sydney Vernadakis, sophomores Robyn Beaty and Emily Gronowski and freshmen Issysis Hill and Alexis Heren.
The program has a total of 24 players.
Central's home opener is Friday, Aug. 16, against Perrysburg.
The Tigers begin OCC-Ohio play Aug. 22 at home against North. The Panthers went 5-0 in the league last year to win their second league championship in three seasons.
"If we keep building like we have been, big things can happen," Rings said. "Our schedule is tough. It should be. (The OCC-Ohio title) is the goal. They know it takes commitment to find success."
Boys golfers aiming for league title
Boys golf coach Chris Cores implored his team to learn from its second-place finish in the season-opening Pickerington Central Invitational on Aug. 5 at Turnberry, applying the lessons it learned to its chase for the OCC-Ohio championship.
The league race got off to a good start the next day at Darby Creek, as the Tigers shot a 315 and used a fifth-score tiebreaker to edge Gahanna to win the first round of the four-round tournament ahead of North (317), Grove City (323), Lancaster (373) and Reynoldsburg (416).
At Darby Creek, junior Aidan Allen shot a 74, followed by classmates Blake Bennett (78) and Jaden Thompson (80) and sophomores Cole Crandall and Carter Woodward (both 85).
The Tigers shot a 309 in their home invitational, four shots behind champion Olentangy Berlin (305) in the 19-team field.
"I'd always rather win, but (second place Aug. 5) keeps us humble and keeps us hungry," said Cores, who is in his 15th season. "Gahanna beat us all four times last year and trying to capture an OCC(-Ohio) title is a big stated goal. We had some close contests with North, too, but Gahanna got us all four times and we remember that."
Central went 16-4 in the league last year, second behind the Lions (20-0).
The Tigers remained in first place through the second round of the league tournament Aug. 12 at Apple Valley, although they shot a 319 to finish behind North (314) and ahead of Grove City (323), Gahanna (323), Lancaster (364) and Reynoldsburg (394).
Allen shot a 78, followed by Thompson (80), Woodward (80) and Crandall (81).
Central graduated only one golfer from the program's first Division I district-qualifying team since 2010 in Trey Blalock.
Bennett was last season's league Player of the Year, the first Tiger to earn that honor since Junichi Hayashi in 1996.
"I'm excited about the depth this team potentially has. We had a nice team last year and the guys are a little bit older (now)," Cores said.
"A lot of guys each bring something a little bit different. They all are so balanced that on any given day, they can turn it on with one strength versus the other. That's what I like so much about this team, how balanced and dependable they really are."
Gabel leading girls golf team
The girls golf team trimmed 30 strokes between its first and second invitationals of the season last week, including a career-best round for senior Miriah Gabel.
Gabel's round of 77 in the first round of the OCC-Ohio tournament Aug. 7 at Blacklick Woods led Central to a team score of 385 and fourth place behind Gahanna (351), Grove City (353) and North (365) and ahead of Big Walnut (429).
Also scoring were sophomore Ella Drake (95), junior Riley Stewart (106) and sophomore Jenna Saythongphet (107).
"They will improve every match; I really do believe that. They've had the experience in the league and in tournaments and in the postseason," third-year coach Alecia Larsen said. "Their shot execution is better. They may not score as well as they are going to score, but the execution is better and so is the consistency. That's what I am waiting for this season, the consistency of that execution."
Central opened Aug. 5 by finishing last (415) of 15 teams in the Lady Lion Invitational at Jefferson as defending Division I state champion New Albany won (297). Gabel led the Tigers with a 91.
"Not having big numbers and not getting in trouble (is the key for Gabel)," Larsen said. "If she can keep it in play and her misses are OK, she's going to be in very good shape. That's when you can really start scoring."
The team's fifth golfer, junior Karlie Skaggs, missed last week because of a family vacation but was scheduled to rejoin the team in time for the second round of the OCC-Ohio tournament Aug. 14 at Royal American.
The Tigers went 11-9 in the league last year to finish third behind North (20-0) and Gahanna (16-4).
Below are the coming schedules for the Central boys golf, boys soccer, girls soccer, girls tennis and girls volleyball teams:
Aug. 17 -- Watkins Memorial Invitational at Cumberland Trail
Aug. 20 -- At Olentangy Orange
Aug. 20 -- At Bexley
Aug. 15 -- At Westerville Central
Aug. 16 -- Home vs. Perrysburg
Aug. 17 -- Pickerington Central Invitational
Aug. 20 -- Home vs. New Albany
Aug. 21 -- At Hilliard Bradley
Aug. 16 -- At Westerville Central
Aug. 20 -- At Groveport