Perhaps the common theme of the season through five games for Pickerington North boys basketball coach Jason Bates is that there weren't many common themes.
The Panthers pulled away in both of their two wins, 62-45 at Linden-McKinley on Dec. 3 and 53-38 over visiting Westland seven nights later. The reverse was true in a season-opening 63-51 home loss to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary on Nov. 30 as part of the All-Ohio High School Hoop Showcase.
A 44-42 loss to Gahanna on Dec. 13, the Panthers' OCC-Ohio Division opener, was different in that North led 35-27 in the final seconds of the third quarter and was ahead until the final 1 minute, 24 seconds.
The Panthers were shorthanded in the loss, as neither Dior Conners nor Idris Lawrence played because of injuries, but Bates was in no mood to make excuses.
"We had enough to beat them with the guys we had available, but their guys made a few more plays when it mattered," Bates said. "This was a district final-type team that we will have to face at some point, and our league is our league. We were short some guys and some guys had to play more than normal, but I was happy with how we played overall.
"This game was different (than the previous three). We have to continue to focus on the little things. Getting hit with injuries, it makes us have to break down and evaluate where we are."
North was 2-3 overall before visiting Pickerington Central on Dec. 17. That game was the originally scheduled league opener for both teams but was postponed 11 days because the Tigers' football team was playing for the Division I state championship.
Because the bench is shortened, starters such as Casey George, Chris Scott and Hunter Shedenhelm are playing with few if any breaks. Scott and Shedenhelm each had 10 points against Gahanna and Jerry Saunders, in his first year as a starter, added eight points.
George averaged 12.3 points through four games, ahead of Shedenhelm (11.4) and Scott (11.0).
Scott had 15 points in a 45-42 loss to Hilliard Bradley on Dec. 14 in the Ohio Scholastic Play by Play Classic at Nationwide Arena.
Saunders, a sophomore guard, has moved into a starting role after coming off the bench as a freshman. He scored a career-high 14 points against Westland and attributed his improvement to increased work on his agility, defense and jump shot.
"Last year, I just came into the game to shoot 3-pointers. This year, I am in there to play defense, lock the best person on the other team down and score buckets," Saunders said. "I love it."
Forwards Elijah Hawk and Savion Marshall-Hamilton have seen considerable time inside.
"I have been challenging (the inside guys) lately to do even more. They've answered the call for what we have needed them to do," Bates said. "We're young as far as a lot of our decision-making players. They will get better in those moments, but sometimes you have to go through tough games in order to do that."
North remains busy this week, as a stretch of five games in nine days will conclude with a Friday, Dec. 20, home league game against visiting Lancaster and an appearance in the Capital City Coaches for a Cure event Saturday, Dec. 21, against Centerville at Capital University.
"We have to be realistic in what we expect from our guys," Bates said. "These guys haven't been there, playing this type of minutes. That's the common theme as much as anything, these guys dealing with a steep learning curve. You want to win while doing that, but our schedule is not very forgiving."
Girls team, coach exercising patience
The girls basketball team is 1-6 overall and will seek its first OCC-Ohio win in four games when it visits Lancaster on Friday, Dec. 20, but coach Silas Williams remains optimistic that the team's best days are yet to come.
"We're still learning. We have four sophomores and four freshmen and they have a lot of room to grow," Williams said. "What I love about this team is that we play hard and that is going to keep us in a lot of games. I like what we're doing, but we're still thinking too much. Once we get that out of the way and get our rhythm down and get the repetition they need at the varsity level, I think we can surprise some people."
Williams pointed to the Panthers winning three out of four quarters in both a season-opening 50-39 loss to Upper Arlington on Nov. 22 and a 40-35 setback to Grove City on Dec. 3, as well as a largely close game against Westerville North on Nov. 25 that the Panthers ultimately lost 45-29.
"Our girls don't back down. We have to get more physical and aggressive and rebound better, and we have to find a way to score," said Williams, whose team also lost to Watterson 71-23 on Dec. 16.
North defeated Westland 75-28 on Dec. 10. Three nights later, the Panthers trailed Gahanna just 13-9 after a quarter but were outscored 51-13 in the next two on the way to an 80-24 loss.
Jada Moultair had a game-high 15 points against Westland. Kylie Mizer's eight points led the way against Gahanna.
Wrestlers prepare for friendly meet
The wrestling team will travel to Olentangy Berlin on Saturday, Dec. 21, for a day of duals that coach Derek Oney hopes will be the first in a series between old friends.
Oney and Berlin coach Josh Heffernan were teammates at Ohio University in the mid-1990s.
They hope to eventually make an entire meet from teams coached by some of their former Bobcats teammates.
"It's always fun to go up against your friends," Oney said. "We want to put a dual together eventually at OU before one of their matches because that's where we wrestled."
Rounding out the field are Amanda-Clearcreek, Big Walnut, Buckeye Valley and Olentangy Orange.
In the Liberty Classic that concluded Dec. 14 at Olentangy Liberty, North scored 52 points to tie Athens for 19th place out of 27 teams as the host Patriots won (197).
Josiah George finished fourth at 195 pounds and David Carte (145) and Erik Gomez (132) each placed sixth.