Hilliard Darby wrestling coach Brendan Moody and his staff altered their approach last season and it paid dividends in the form of a league championship and a state qualifier.
"Last year was one of the most fun seasons that I've ever had as a coach," said Moody, who is in his 11th season. "We did some things differently as a coaching staff. We took the pressure off and some of the intensity off early on in the season and the kids responded."
The Panthers, who won the OCC-Cardinal Division title with a 7-0 record, lost eight wrestlers from a year ago to graduation.
Among the graduates was Rodney Beneker, who competed in the Division I state tournament at heavyweight despite having a torn meniscus in his left knee and a left shoulder injury. He went 0-2 at state to finish the season 37-10.
"It was an example of good senior leadership," Moody said. "In my opinion, we exceeded expectations. We ended up 13-1 in duals, we won our OCC (division) and took second at the state dual regionals. If you would have told me at the beginning of the season that's where we were going to finish up and land, I would not have believed you. The kids kept stepping up. We had a lot of those young guys stepping up that are now in the driver's seat."
This year's team will be led by a group of juniors, but Moody thinks the underclassmen will contribute, too.
"We've got a really, really strong junior class, we've got some tough sophomores and then we're really excited about our freshman class," Moody said. "We've got 18 freshmen and all of them come in with a little bit of experience and a little bit of know-how."
Juniors Isaiah Beneker (170 or 182 pounds), Kole Kendall (195), Blayne Barnes (220) and Bradley Weaver (heavyweight) are expected to lead the way for Darby, which opened Dec. 5 with a 38-24 loss at Mount Vernon. Barnes and Weaver were among the Panthers to post victories.
"Those are going to be the four that we're leaning on to get the newer guys through some tough times," Moody said. "Isaiah is extremely athletic and when he's attacking, he is tough to stop. Blayne is probably not as polished as Isaiah Beneker, but he's got the motor. He's a kid that, as of right now, is a whole lot better in the third period than he is in the first period."
"Our bookends are both pretty solid," Barnes said. "Our heavier weights are all returning and are pretty solid, our middleweights can surprise (opponents) with the talent they have (and) I think our younger (smaller) guys are really showing their move-sets and skill level."
Weaver qualified for district at 195 last season, but wasn't able to compete because of a broken elbow.
"He's up a couple of weight classes," Moody said. "As far as a leader on the mat, that'd be him right now. We're excited to see him get tested. In the room, he's looked phenomenal. Now, can he transition how he's looking in practice into competition?"
Freshman Carter Slubowski (106), junior Daoud Saadeh (132), sophomore Nathan Morris (138) and junior Josh DiGioia (152) also posted victories against Mount Vernon.
"I think we're going to be pretty good this year overall," Barnes said. "We've been up here grinding every day, even over Thanksgiving break."
Ryan Blackerby (132) and Caiden Rayburn (160) are the only seniors for Darby, which opens league action Thursday, Dec. 12, at home against Olentangy Berlin.
Apel, Peck to lead swimmers, divers
Junior Hayden Apel and sophomore Mason Peck of the boys swimming and diving team are aiming for a return to the Division I state meet this season.
Apel has competed at state the past two seasons in diving, placing ninth a year ago after finishing 19th as a freshman, while Peck finished 21st at state in the 100-yard butterfly last year.
"Unfortunately for Hayden, the boys in central Ohio are really tough," said Thad Apel, who is Hayden's father and in his fourth season as the Panthers' diving coach. "It probably wouldn't be an exaggeration to say (the) boys in our district are probably the toughest (in the) state. He's been working really hard. He'd like to move up a spot or two (at state), but diving is a funny sport in that it just depends on how the judges feel that day."
Juniors Brady Bower and Malik Tarazi and sophomores Erik Dickmann, Chase Ellis, Jared Hopkins and Casey Maruniak also return for the Panthers, who opened Dec. 7 with a 113-48 win over Westerville South.
"Overall, both the guys and the girls teams are very young," 21st-year coach Brian Dickmann said. "(Our) team goals are to win more meets than we won last year and qualify more than we did last year (to the) district and state meets."
Senior Isabel Quimba, junior Natalie Wood and sophomores Rachel Hopkins and Morgan Morcher-Thatcher represented the girls team at district last season in the 200 medley relay and finished 19th.
Hopkins, Quimba, Wood and 2019 graduate Mackensie Strellrecht finished 21st at district last season in the 400 freestyle relay. Strellrecht also competed at district in the 500 free a year ago.
Senior Margaret Lee and sophomore Madison Blue are other returnees for the Panthers, who fell to Westerville South 118-41 in their opener Dec. 7.
"On both sides, senior losses will be a factor," Dickmann said. "But the youth of the team should be able to fill in the blanks nicely."
Sophomore Kiera Porter has joined the program as a diver.
"She used to dive when she was little," coach Apel said. "She's making the switch from gymnastics back to diving this year."
Below are the coming schedules for the Darby boys basketball, girls basketball, bowling, gymnastics, swimming & diving and wrestling:
*Dec. 13 -- At Dublin Scioto
Dec. 16 -- At Olentangy Orange
*Dec. 13 -- Home vs. Dublin Scioto
Dec. 16 -- Home vs Orange
Dec. 14 -- Pioneer Baker Bash at Columbus Square Bowling Palace
*Dec. 16 -- Reynoldsburg at Holiday Lanes
*Dec. 17 -- Olentangy Berlin at Delaware Lanes
Dec. 14 -- Hilliard Invitational at Darby
SWIMMING & DIVING
Dec. 13-14 -- Ned Reeb Memorial Invitational at Ohio State
Dec. 14 -- Fletchers Dive Invitational at Kenyon College
*Dec. 12 -- Home vs. Olentangy Berlin
Dec. 14 -- PJ's Pizza Wrestling Classic at Big Walnut