Coming off a second-place finish in the OCC-Cardinal Division and a fifth-place finish in the district meet last winter, the Hilliard Darby gymnastics team began this season with three strong outings.
The Panthers won their first meet Dec. 4 at home with a score of 128.925 and placed second Dec. 9 at Dublin Coffman by scoring 129.725. Then in the Hilliard Invitational on Dec. 14 at home, Darby scored 129.65 to place third behind Dublin Jerome (135.675) and Worthington Kilbourne (132.675).
"We're off to a really strong start," 18th-year coach Carol Eskay said. "We have another large team again this year. We have a nice amount of depth."
Eskay is at the helm of a roster that she said has the ability to compete across the board, led by returnees such as sophomore Annamarie Bayer, junior Laurel Bonn, senior Scarlett Evans and juniors Jenna Hartwell, Kate Kline and Bailey Miller.
However, sophomore Anne Hassay did not return after competing on floor exercise and balance beam and in the all-around at state.
"We have a lot of really good strength and a lot of really good experience coming into the season," Eskay said. "All of my returning girls can compete all-around, which is the majority of them. (They) all have the capacity to be strong competitors."
Evans said the team is close and should be able to sustain its early success if the gymnasts stick together.
"You have to have the support of all of your teammates," she said. "We all have such a good support system amongst each other, and that helps us to keep going."
Down the road, Eskay said the Panthers will rely on their existing skills while cleaning up some of the smaller things in their routines.
"I think we have a lot of the basic requirements in our routines," she said. "We're hitting some of those requirements. But it really is about consistency and dynamics and execution.
"We'll still be adding some skills throughout the season for sure because it's early. But a lot of it is really focused on cleaning up everything we have, because you can take a routine with the same skills in it and if you're able to clean it up and improve the dynamics you can improve it by more than a point just in execution and composition types of things."
Evans said the team also will work on its conditioning as the season progresses.
"I think we have to work on our endurance, because it's just the beginning of the season," she said. "Right now we're just working toward having better endurance."
Boys team looking to improve defense
The boys basketball team is working to develop its young players and improve its defense.
The Panthers fell to 2-4 overall with a 67-44 loss to Olentangy Orange on Dec. 16. They are 2-1 in the OCC-Cardinal.
"I think our ball movement has been better than what I had anticipated," coach Chris Maul said. "We started off in the first game struggling a little bit, and we showed a lot of growth between game one and game two. I was so happy with our offensive progress."
The Panthers opened with a 59-41 loss to Marysville on Dec. 3 but rebounded to defeat Delaware 49-48 in their league opener three nights later.
Maul said his team has work to do on defense.
"On the defensive side, we're really young, and it takes time to get the process down for our kids," he said. "I'm happy with our offense. I'm happy with our ball movement. But I think our defensive side has got to show a lot of growth here."
The Panthers are anchored by seniors such as Nick Skelskey (6-1, guard), Josh Carney (6-2, guard) and Jacob Foster (6-2, forward). Skelskey was averaging a team-high 9.0 points through five games.
But there also are three sophomores and two freshmen in the rotation. One of those players, 6-2 sophomore guard Gio Roberts, was the Panthers' second-leading scorer through five games, averaging 7.4 points.
"Our goal is to take things slow and not rush the guys through things and make their basketball life very complicated," Maul said. "We want to be simple on what we do on both sides of the ball. We're going to have a decent amount of players in our program for the next two years, so we really want to make sure that we take our time with our offense and defense, but at the same time push the players and hold them accountable for things."
Girls team battles growing pains
A young girls basketball team is seeking to replace the experience and offensive output lost with the graduation of Annie Rauch and Sydney Wyngarden.
The Panthers improved to 3-4 overall with a 46-44 overtime win over Orange on Dec. 16. They are 0-4 in the OCC-Cardinal after winning the league title last year at 12-2.
"Of course, we won all those games last year, (but) we had a veteran team," coach Tay Tufts said. "(We had) two great seniors that are playing college ball right now, so we returned all young girls. Some were experienced but some were not, but we lost a majority of our scoring."
Rausch is playing for Ball State and Wyngarden is playing for Lake Erie College.
The Panthers feature only two seniors in 5-7 forward Jenna Rasul and 5-10 forward Briana Turner.
"This was the year where I knew at first we would have some growing pains -- girls are trying to understand their roles and responsibilities on the team," Tufts said. "So I knew we would have that. But I'm starting to see girls we were expecting to step (into those) roles step up."
One of those players is 5-5 freshman Bella Heaton, who is replacing Wyngarden at point guard.
"I didn't expect her to do as well as she's doing," Tufts said. "She is a ballplayer. She loves basketball. She lives it. She's watching it all the time. She sleeps basketball."
Tufts also credited the contributions of 5-10 freshman center Ashley Powers.
Below are the coming schedules for the Darby boys basketball, girls basketball and wrestling teams:
*Dec. 20 -- Home vs. Olentangy Berlin
*Dec. 20 -- At Berlin
*Dec. 19 -- At Worthington Kilbourne
Dec. 21 -- Home vs. Massillon Washington, Westerville North and Uhrichsville Claymont