Boys Basketball: Backcourt to set pace for Pickerington North

Dave Purpura
ThisWeek group
North's Elijah Hawk attempts to box out Central's Devin Royal during a game last season. Both players are among the top returnees for the Panthers and Tigers. North is counting on the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Hawk to be an inside force.

Almost every one of coach Jason Bates’ previous six boys basketball teams at Pickerington North featured formidable big men, including Division I recruits in Jerome Hunter (Indiana) and Eli McNamara (Miami University) as well as 2020 graduate Hunter Shedenhelm, a versatile 6-foot-5 scoring threat who now plays at Ashland.

Bates thinks he has another such weapon this season in 6-4, 240-pound senior forward/center Elijah Hawk, but the presence of nine guards on the Panthers’ 13-player roster means this year’s team will look like few of its predecessors.

An expected solid group of guards that includes senior Casey George (6-0) and juniors Dior Conners (6-1), Corey Hudson (5-11) and Jerry Saunders (6-1) returns as North tries to recapture the OCC-Ohio Division championship and win its third Division I district title in five years.

The Panthers are scheduled to open Dec. 18 with a league game at Grove City.

“I’ve always had good guard play, but it’s never been three or four guys, maybe even five, who are really good guards in one collection,” Bates said. “Having (Hawk) to go along with those guys, we’re going to switch the way we play a little bit, but it will be fun. It’s more up-tempo, faster and more downhill.”

George averaged 12.5 points as a junior, second behind Shedenhelm (12.7) and just ahead of Chris Scott (11.8), who now plays football at Cincinnati. George scored in double-digits 18 times and had 20 or more points four times as North went 21-5 overall and 8-2 in the league, losing to Thomas Worthington 52-48 in a district final.

Conners, who like Saunders saw considerable playing time as a sophomore, anticipates having to be a leader and scorer while playing both point and shooting guard.

“I’ll have to be more of a leader (when it comes to) bringing the ball up the court and getting everybody into the offense, especially the young guys,” Conners said. “I need to take control.”

Saunders was quick to point out that the team’s speed has benefited its defense.

“We can guard full court now and that leads to more transition points. That’s how we’ll have to compete this year,” Saunders said. “We have to be good in transition.”

Rounding out the roster are seniors Steven Hile (6-4, forward), Idris Lawrence (5-11, guard), Ben Slayman (6-5, forward/center) and Brent Wippel (6-1, guard), junior Zach Jenkins (6-6, forward/center), sophomores Jeff Amapps (6-2, guard) and Kaedyn Dunbar (6-1, guard) and freshman Jaiden Vital (6-0, guard).

Central's Garner Wallace shoots over North's Elijah Hawk during a game last season. Wallace, who averaged 13.5 points last winter, is transitioning to basketball after leading the Tigers football team to the Division I state final this fall.

Harlan, Styles, Wallace

among Tigers’ leaders

Seventh-year Central coach Eric Krueger did not want a three-week delay to the season, but he quickly found a silver lining in having to wait until late December instead of opening Nov. 28 as originally scheduled.

“We’re just trying to get better across the board, every phase of the game. We have a long way to go and this extra time could end up paying off for us with chemistry and working the newer guys in,” Krueger said. “We have a ways to go as far as figuring out who we are as a team. We have to create our own identity, especially defensively, and continue to stay at it.”

Senior Garner Wallace (6-5, forward), a Northwestern football commit, returns after averaging 13.5 points last season and leading the football team to a Division I state runner-up finish.

Junior Josh Harlan (5-11, guard) and sophomores Devin Royal (6-5, forward) and Sonny Styles (6-4, forward) also are back from a team that went 18-7 overall and 7-3 in the OCC-Ohio but fell short of a Division I district final for the first time since 2015.

“Out of my four years here, I think this is the most unselfish team we’ve had. We have a lot of playmakers,” Wallace said. “We have a lot of the same guys back and having that year of experience will make our offense better. I won’t feel as much pressure on the offensive side.”

Harlan was the starting point guard some of last season and relishes his chance to assume that role full time.

“Last year, I was just a guy who got the offense going and controlled the offense. Now I am trying to score and get everyone involved,” Harlan said. “It’s a lot of pressure going to Pick Central and being the starting point guard, but I think I can handle it. I’ll be fine.”

According to Krueger, senior Elhadji Thiam (6-7, forward) is expected to miss most or all of the season because of a torn labrum.

The rest of the roster consists of seniors Zakai Alexander (6-3, guard), Deshon Evans (6-1, guard), Gary Garrison Jr. (6-5, forward), Mahlon Moorer (6-0, guard) and Tyler Robinson (6-1, guard), junior Lance Pressley (6-5, forward), sophomores Derek Grimes III (6-0, guard) and Gavin Headings (6-7, forward) and freshman Juwan Turner (5-9, guard).

The Tigers’ first scheduled game is Dec. 19 at home against Cincinnati Princeton in the Tiger Roundball Classic.

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave

CENTRAL

Coach: Eric Krueger, seventh season

Top players: Zakai Alexander, Devin Royal, Sonny Styles and Garner Wallace

Key losses: Conner Maciag and Tahleik Walker

Last season: 18-7 overall

2019-20 OCC-Ohio standings: Gahanna (9-1), Pickerington North (8-2), Pickerington Central (7-3), Reynoldsburg (3-7), Grove City (2-8), Lancaster (1-9)

2020 postseason: Defeated Mount Vernon 76-48; def. Licking Heights 72-40; lost to Delaware 57-45 in Division I district semifinal

NORTH

Coach: Jason Bates, seventh season

Top players: Dior Conners, Casey George, Elijah Hawk, Corey Hudson and Jerry Saunders

Key losses: Savion Marshall-Hamilton, Chris Scott and Hunter Shedenhelm

Last season: 21-5 overall

2020 postseason: Def. Logan 73-36; def. Hilliard Davidson 51-34; def. Chillicothe 64-38; lost to Thomas Worthington 52-48 in Division I district final