Pickerington Central boys basketball coach Eric Krueger wasn't exaggerating when he said he couldn't remember another preseason like this one.
It wasn't that the Tigers were without a handful of players who were busy with the football team's postseason run, including 6-foot-5 junior forward/guard Garner Wallace, but rather a pronounced lack of varsity experience overall.
Central lost 10 players to graduation, by far the most in any of Krueger's six seasons, from a team that went 25-2 overall and 9-1 in the OCC-Ohio Division and lost to Olentangy Liberty 66-58 in overtime in a Division I regional semifinal. Not only are all of those 10 playing this year in college or on a post-graduate team, but the Tigers have only four players with any varsity experience in Wallace, seniors Conner Maciag (6-2, guard) and Tahleik Walker (6-3, guard) and junior Elhadji Thiam (6-7, center/forward).
"Last year was a unique year. They were a talented, good group. We've never had that many (seniors). It was just one of those years where it worked out that way," said Krueger, whose team opened Nov. 30 with a 54-53 loss to Toledo St. Francis in the All-Ohio High School Hoops Showcase at Pickerington North. "We're in the process of continuing to figure out our group of guys. We'll continue to do what we've always done, but we're learning more about the team and talking about lineups."
The previous largest graduating class in Krueger's tenure was five in 2018.
Wallace started during the second half of last season and averaged 10.5 points, third on the team behind 2019 graduates Javohn Garcia (19.6 points, 5.5 rebounds) and Coleton Landis (11.0 points, 8.5 rebounds). Garcia is a Massachusetts recruit who currently is playing for Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and Landis plays at Rio Grande.
Given how much production the Tigers need to replace, Maciag, who will primarily play point guard but also see time as a shooting guard, expects scoring to be balanced.
"We're not a team with a big-name player like we have had in the past, but we also have a bunch of guys who have stepped up well," said Maciag, who had 20 points, seven rebounds and three assists against St. Francis. "You might have one guy who scores about 20 to 25 a game and the other guys get six or eight here or there, but everything is balanced. One night, one guy might have 15. Another night, a guy who hasn't scored a lot may get 15 or 20. It's just one of those things that everyone needs to be ready to step into their role. Anyone can score at any given time on this team."
Rounding out the roster are seniors Andre Edwards (6-3, forward) and Christian Hollins (6-1, guard), juniors Zakai Alexander (6-3, forward), Deshon Evans (6-1, guard) and Jaden Snell (6-3, forward), sophomore Josh Harlan (5-10, guard) and freshmen Devin Royal (6-4, forward) and Sonny Styles (6-4, forward).
"We don't have a particular main big besides Elhadji Thiam and Zakai Alexander. We can all switch positions," Walker said. "We play hard. We move the ball. We just play together well. Nobody is selfish."
Central begins OCC-Ohio play Friday, Dec. 6, at home against North. The teams tied for first place in the league last season, three games ahead of third-place Reynoldsburg (6-4).
"When we get our full team, we'll be in a better spot overall," Krueger said. "It's a good opportunity for these young guys and inexperienced guys to get better and put themselves in a position for whatever role they may have."
Youth to have say in bowlers' season
The girls bowling team returns two Division I district qualifiers in senior Kate Merkel and sophomore Jaycie Arnet, and seventh-year coach Jason Roach expects several younger bowlers to see time for both the boys and girls teams this season.
Merkel and Arnet led the girls in average at 149.7 and 142.8 pins per game, respectively, as Central went 6-5 overall.
Seniors Grant Gilkey (164.3), Christian Kirton (161.6) and Jamison Stoniosis (156.6) are back for the boys team, which finished 3-9.
Both teams opened the season Nov. 23 in the Red and Blue Classic at HP Lanes.
"We have a bunch of seniors and a bunch of freshmen and not much in between, but we've grown from barely having a team (a few years ago) to now having close to 35 kids (in the program)," Roach said. "(Freshman) Alexis Tullis is impressive. She can bowl with (Merkel and Arnet) and they're good. It'll probably be the best team we've ever had, I would think. It should be."
Rounding out the girls roster are senior Kathy Burgess, juniors Frankie Moore and Allison Whisman and sophomore Emily Stickel.
According to Roach, junior Zach Walker and freshmen Hayden Baden, Alex Bookman and Brandon Bradley also will be among the boys team's top bowlers. Roach did not rule out more bowlers joining the team, potentially after the football team's Division I playoff run concludes.
"Three freshmen will be in the starting lineup, some way, somehow," Roach said. "In the history of this (team), we've never had more than one really good freshman at a time. We usually get them when they are juniors and as seniors, they do great."
Central began COHSBC-B and OCC-Central play Dec. 3 against Lancaster at Tiki Lanes. The Tigers' home opener at Rule 3 is Dec. 19 against Gahanna.
Below are the coming schedules for the Central boys basketball, girls basketball, bowling and swimming & diving teams:
*Dec. 6 -- Home vs. Pickerington North
Dec. 10 -- At Groveport
*Dec. 6 -- Home vs. Pickerington North
Dec. 7 -- Union (Ky.) Ryle in Hoops for Harvest at Fort Mitchell (Ky.) Dixie Heights
Dec. 10 -- Home vs. Groveport
*Dec. 6 -- Thomas Worthington at Capri Lanes
SWIMMING & DIVING
Dec. 7 -- Athens Invitational at Ohio University