The Pickerington North boys soccer team entered the final week of the season undefeated and on the cusp of winning its fourth consecutive OCC-Ohio Division championship.
Neither of those things surprised coach Darin Monhollen, regardless of the fact that the Panthers returned only three starters from last year's team that made program history by winning a Division I district title.
North outscored its first 14 opponents by combined 53-13 and was 9-0-5 overall before playing New Albany on Oct. 8. The Panthers and Reynoldsburg shared first place in the league at 3-0-1 after playing to a 1-all tie on Oct. 3.
"We have a good system our players believe in, but we've adapted how we play this year to meet our personnel," Monhollen said. "We have some talent, but our players might be good at things in a style that's a little different than what we've had the last couple years. You evaluate what you have and see where you can plug things in. Sometimes, we'll play a certain formation in the first half and then we'll vary that and play differently in the second half to solidify something.
"I attribute our success to the fact that no matter how many starters we had coming back, we had guys who were hungry to play."
North will try to clinch at least a share of the league title Thursday, Oct. 10, when it finishes the regular season at home against Grove City. Reynoldsburg finished OCC-Ohio play Oct. 8 at Lancaster.
A defense led by Cade DeMattio, Connor Socolik, Donnie Williams and goalkeepers Ty Bowden and Cory Pulles -- and aided in the midfield by Duvall Brannon and Uche Odemena -- recorded four shutouts during an eight-game stretch in September, when North gave up only five goals.
"We have great chemistry. We move the ball well. We trust each other," Brannon said. "Our talent level overall might not be as high as last year, but I think we have the chance to go just as far this year."
Odemena joined the Panthers for his sophomore season after exclusively playing club, first for Columbus East FC and now for Ohio Premier.
One of last year's top contributors, forward Brayden Durbin, followed the same strategy, although he did not play for North until he was a senior. Durbin, who now plays at Ohio State, recorded 12 goals to earn co-league Player of the Year and second-team all-state honors.
"It's a good program. I wanted to be a part of something special," Odemena said. "I'm not upset with what we've done, but I still think we can be better. We think we have a couple more wins in us."
North is the fourth seed in the 52-team district tournament and will play host to 35th-seeded Delaware or 38th-seeded Whetstone in the second round Oct. 17.
"If we ask for something as a coaching staff, we're getting it," Monhollen said. "That can take you a long way."
Five tennis players advance to district
Coming off a Division I sectional in which its doubles teams faced off for the championship, the girls tennis team will be represented by both doubles pairings and singles standout Cassie Alcala in the district tournament Thursday, Oct. 10, and Saturday, Oct. 12, at Reynoldsburg.
Maggie Haas and Kim Nguyen were seeded second and went 4-0 at sectional, defeating Sophia Anderson and Corinna Moesle 6-3, 6-2 in the doubles final Oct. 5 at Reynoldsburg. Anderson and Moesle were seeded third and went 3-1.
Alcala, who was seeded second and is seeking her fourth consecutive state tournament berth, went 4-1 and lost to top-seeded Maddie Atway of Olentangy Liberty 6-4, 6-4 in the singles final.
The top four finishers in singles and doubles advanced to district.
Also competing but failing to advance were singles players Rhyan Cook (1-1) and Jessica Scruggs (0-1).
At district, the top four finishers in singles and doubles advance to state Oct. 18 and 19 at Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason.
North was 20-1 before visiting Upper Arlington for the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association Division I district final Oct. 8. The winner advances to a state semifinal Oct. 20 at Reynoldsburg.
Golf teams reach district tourney
A balanced effort led the boys golf team to its third consecutive Division I district tournament berth, as it shot a 306 to win a sectional Oct. 2 at Turnberry ahead of runner-up Olentangy Berlin (308) as 15 teams scored.
Elijah Hale shot a 74 to tie Berlin's Bryce Reed for medalist honors. Also scoring for North were Carson Bellish (77), Tomasz Douangsy (77) and Colin Mulligan and Hadyn Hunt (both 78).
The top four teams and top four individuals not on qualifying teams advanced to district Oct. 8 at Apple Valley.
In a girls sectional Oct. 1 at Royal American, Cassie Tasney's round of 78 led North to second place (349) behind champion Dublin Jerome (321) as 11 teams scored. The top three teams and top three individuals not on qualifying teams advanced to district Oct. 8 at New Albany Links.
Tasney was followed by Reagan Norton (85), Ella Bertke (92) and Allyson Rosen (94).
From both district tournaments, the top two teams and top two individuals not on qualifying teams advanced to state Oct. 18 and 19 at Ohio State.
Rhoades passes milestone in digs
Senior setter Kaitlyn Rhoades of the girls volleyball team surpassed 1,000 career digs Oct. 3 during a 25-23, 20-25, 25-19, 17-25, 15-7 home loss to Reynoldsburg.
Rhoades needed four digs entering the match to become the first player in the program's 17 seasons to record at least 1,000. She got 23 that night, raising her career total to 1,019.
"Kaitlyn has been a solid defender for us for the past four years," coach April Boudreau said.
"Her quickness, ability to read hitters and hustle have made her a top defender in the area."
North was 16-4 overall before playing Olentangy Orange on Oct. 8 and finishes league and regular-season play Thursday, Oct. 10, at Grove City. The Panthers defeated the Greyhounds 25-17, 25-14, 26-24 on Sept. 17.
The Panthers earned the ninth seed in the 49-team Division I district tournament and will play host to 14th-seeded Grove City or 40th-seeded Logan in the second round Oct. 17.
Below are the coming schedules for the North cross country and girls soccer teams:
Oct. 12 -- OCC-Ohio meet at Lancaster
*Oct. 10 -- At Grove City
Oct. 19 -- Home vs. 21st-seeded Pickerington Central or 38th-seeded Teays Valley in second round of Division I district tournament. The Panthers are seeded second.