Despite having lost eight athletes from a year ago to graduation, the Hilliard Darby wrestling team has maintained its competitive edge and enjoyed success this season largely because of the contributions of its underclassmen and juniors.
Now, the Panthers are preparing for a Division I sectional Saturday, Feb. 29, at Upper Arlington, with the top four finishers in each weight class advancing to the district tournament March 6 and 7 at Darby.
"Realistically, our goals are trying to master the basics, and (the wrestlers) are buying in more and more every day," coach Brendan Moody said. "We're getting to a point in the season where it's so much about the grind. That's probably more important than technique, really. That's kind of the strength of our team. They'll show up every day and grind."
"We grind every day, we grind hard," said junior Bradley Weaver, who was 12-1 at heavyweight entering last week. "I think we're going to be successful at the sectional tournament."
Weaver said the team is feeling confident and getting stronger heading into the sectional with several wrestlers getting healthy.
"Hopefully, we'll come to districts and kick some butt there, that's what I'm hoping," Weaver said. "Even though we only have two seniors, we have a young team that I think is stepping up to the plate and taking charge."
The Panthers finished second in the OCC-Cardinal Division at 6-1, behind Delaware (7-0). They concluded league action Feb. 13 with a 36-29 win over Bradley. Darby finished first in the league last season.
Aside from seniors Ryan Blackerby (132 pounds) and Caiden Rayburn (160), the Panthers are largely carried by a supporting cast of juniors and underclassmen. Freshman Colt Ryan (106) and sophomore Nate Morris (138) have been among the team's top wrestlers.
Ryan was 28-8 entering last week and Morris was 27-10.
"We don't typically have freshman as talented as (Ryan), so he's really done a great job," Moody said. "(Morris has) kind of taken that next step. He was a quality kid last year as a freshman in the lineup, and he's taken it up a notch."
Other top performers include juniors Blayne Barnes (220), Isaiah Beneker (170), Daoud Saadeh (126) and Weaver.
Entering last week, Barnes was 31-9, Beneker was 23-13 and Saadeh was 22-15.
"Now we're just working on our conditioning and making sure every single part of our moves are perfect," Weaver said. "We're not adding new moves, we're not subtracting moves. We're focusing on our main moves that we need to be successful and we're conditioning, conditioning, conditioning."
Apel places third at state in diving
Junior boys diver Hayden Apel made his third appearance in the Division I state meet Feb. 22 at Branin Natatorium in Canton, finishing third with 414.85 points.
It was his best state performance yet. Apel placed ninth (412.8) last season after finishing 19th (260.75) as a freshman.
"I'm very excited about how I ended up finishing," Apel said. "My first probably eight dives were not that good, but I finished strong on my last three."
Also competing at state for the boys team were sophomore Mason Peck in the 200-yard freestyle (17th, 1 minute, 43.02 seconds), and the 200 medley relay of sophomore Jared Hopkins, junior Mason Irwin, sophomore Casey Maruniak and Peck (13th, 1:36.1).
Peck, who finished 21st at state in the 100 butterfly last season, entered state as the 12th seed in the 200 free and the relay was seeded 17th.
Darby scored 24 points at state to tie Reynoldsburg for 24th behind champion Cincinnati St. Xavier (310) as 53 teams scored.
Bowling teams advance to district
The bowling teams will compete in the Division I district tournament Saturday, Feb. 29, at HP Lanes.
The boys team finished fourth (3,759) of 47 teams in the sectional Feb. 21 at HP Lanes, behind champion Reynoldsburg (3,991), while the girls team was 14th (2,796) of 42 teams at sectional Feb. 22 at HP Lanes, behind champion Westerville Central (3,653).
The top 16 teams and top 16 individuals not on qualifying teams at both sectionals advanced to district.
At district, the top three boys teams and top three individuals not on qualifying teams as well as the top four girls teams and top four individuals not on qualifying teams advance to state March 6 and 7 at Wayne Webb's Columbus Bowl.
Junior Zach Brandewie led the boys team, rolling a 618 three-game series to finish sixth of 270 bowlers. Michael Beard and Marcus Hunter both rolled a 545, tying Jonathan Alder's Jackson Lane for 37th.
Junior Sarah Leming led the girls team with a 451, finishing 43rd of 192 bowlers, followed by junior Lyndsey Seagraves with a 448 (46th).
Season ends for girls basketball team
The girls basketball team opened the postseason Feb. 21 with a 54-19 loss to second-seeded Watterson in the second round of the Division I district tournament.
Sophomore guard Alexis Finnegan and junior center Sofia Gentile both had four points for 33rd-seeded Darby, which finished 7-16 overall.
Other expected returnees include sophomore guard Tayen Brown, freshman guard Bella Heaton and freshman center Ashley Powers.
The Panthers went 2-12 in the OCC-Cardinal to place seventh.