For reasons he still struggles to explain, Pickerington Central wrestler Bo Branson lacked a certain fire last year as he sought a second consecutive Division I state tournament berth.

Nonetheless, he still was a state alternate by virtue of his fifth-place finish at district but did not compete.

Not content to rest on natural talent alone, Branson possesses a renewed motivation to finish his Tigers career with not just a state berth, but on the podium as a placer.

"I wanted to work on my mindset going into a match and my nutrition," said Branson, a 126-pound senior. "Last year, I was really complacent in the wrestling room. I didn't really push myself as much as I did the year before or what I am doing now. I have to be in a mindset of being down so many points in the third period and needing to make a big move right then, or looking to stay ahead if I am up. Putting myself in certain scenarios during practice to make it feel like a real, live match has been big."

Branson is 18-4 this season and 89-25 overall since becoming a starter as a sophomore. He finished third at district and went 0-2 at state that season to finish 37-10 and was 34-11 a year ago.

Central began OCC-Ohio Division competition Jan. 9 with a 39-36 win at Reynoldsburg.

Branson credited a revamped mental approach to his success this season, including listening to motivational podcasts, as well as a new diet that includes lean meats and vegetables and no drinks other than water and extra time in the wrestling room before and after practice.

"It bothered him quite a bit that he didn't go back (to state) and I remind him when it's needed," coach Jason Allen said. "At times when he doesn't want to work as hard, I remind him what happened. That's part of my job. He tells me what his goals are (and) I have to help him get there. Sometimes it takes being brutally honest and at the time, he probably doesn't like hearing it, but then it sinks in and he realizes I'm here to help."

Branson began the season Dec. 14 by winning the 120 championship at the Hamilton Township Classic. He followed that up with a fifth-place finish at 126 in the Greater Miami Valley Wrestling Association Invitational Tournament that concluded Dec. 28 at Vandalia Butler, a runner-up effort in the Kevin Cleveland Invitational on Jan. 4 at Dublin Scioto and a third-place finish in the Porter Memorial Tournament on Jan. 11 at Hilliard Bradley.

Branson lost to Oregon Clay's Austin Thompson 3-2 in the Kevin Cleveland final.

"He is always on top of what he needs to be doing," said teammate Mekhi Hargrow, an occasional sparring partner of Branson who competes at 138 but plans to cut down to 132. "He has very quick low shots. He's quick on top and he has a lot of moves in his arsenal. He's taught me a lot."

Branson holds scholarship offers from Findlay, Tiffin and Urbana.

"There's still a lot more work to do," Branson said. "I can't be satisfied or complacent with myself. I am always trying to learn and grow more and more. There is a lot more growth I can experience. I am proud of the work I put in in the offseason and now it needs to correlate into what I can accomplish during the season.

"Last year, (returning to state) was more a dream than it was a goal. This year, I am making it more of a goal. Last year, I didn't take any steps to get toward that goal so it was more of just a dream. This year, I am taking things step by step."

Boys basketball team faces showdown

The boys basketball team will try to even its season series with Pickerington North and remain in the OCC-Ohio race when it visits the Panthers on Friday, Jan. 17.

The game will come a month to the day after North's 71-54 win at Central. Garner Wallace had 15 points that night to lead the Tigers, who were outscored 15-6 in the second quarter to fall behind for good.

Central is 8-4 overall and 3-2 in the OCC-Ohio after a 44-42 home loss to Gahanna on Jan. 10. Wallace had 12 points and Connor Maciag 11 for the Tigers, who scored just two points in the fourth quarter but held the Lions to five before Maceo Williams hit a 13-foot game-winning shot at the buzzer.

Gahanna is alone atop the OCC-Ohio at 5-0, one game ahead of North (4-1) and two ahead of Central.

The Tigers rebounded Jan. 11 with a 71-44 home win over Eastmoor Academy in which Maciag had 13 points, Devin Royal scored 12 and Wallace added 11.

Girls team falls into first-place tie

The girls basketball team also will visit North on Friday, Jan. 17, playing the first game of a girls-boys doubleheader.

The Tigers find themselves tied for first place in the league with Gahanna after a 68-63 road loss to the Lions on Jan. 10.

Nicole Stephens had a game-high 28 points and Felesia Ondongo added 11 for Central, which is 10-2 overall and 5-1 in the OCC-Ohio and saw its 16-game league winning streak come to an end.

It was the Tigers' first league loss since a 55-50 setback at Reynoldsburg on Feb. 2, 2018.

Jocelyn Tate had 13 points and Ondongo and Stephens each scored 11 in Central's 77-27 home win over the Panthers on Dec. 5.

The Tigers have defeated North 10 consecutive times dating to the 2014-15 season and lead the all-time series 18-7.

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave

Schedules

Below are the coming schedules for the Central boys basketball, girls basketball, bowling, swimming & diving and wrestling teams:

BOYS BASKETBALL

*Jan. 17 -- At Pickerington North. The Tigers lost to the Panthers 71-54 on Dec. 17.

Jan. 19 -- Glendale (Ariz.) Dream City Christian in Flyin' to the Hoop at Kettering Fairmont

Jan. 21 -- At Westerville Central

GIRLS BASKETBALL

*Jan. 17 -- At Pickerington North. The Tigers defeated the Panthers 77-27 on Dec. 5.

Jan. 19 -- West Chester Lakota West in Classic in the Country at Berlin Hiland

Jan. 21 -- Home vs. Westerville Central

BOWLING

*Jan. 16 -- Worthington Kilbourne at Capri Lanes

Jan. 18 -- Central District Preview at Palace Lanes

*Jan. 21 -- Hilliard Davidson at Ten Pin Alley

SWIMMING & DIVING

Jan. 18 -- Presidential Pentathlon at Ohio Wesleyan

WRESTLING

*Jan. 16 -- Home vs. Grove City

Jan. 18 -- Panther Invitational Tournament at Pickerington North

*League contest