There are multiple reasons why Jim Strode is optimistic about his fourth season as Bexley High School girls basketball coach.
The Lions return nearly every contributor from last year's team that finished 7-14 overall, including three players who received postseason honors in senior Lydia Lake (first-team all-MSL-Ohio Division, honorable mention all-district in Division II), senior Briana Stewart (second-team all-league) and sophomore Elise Torrence (honorable mention all-league).
"It's exciting," Strode said. "At the end of last year we weren't pleased with the record or performance in terms of competitiveness and drive to be successful.
"At the banquet I challenged the girls to be all in. I told the girls that basketball has to be toward the top of their list in life, not No. 1 necessarily, but pretty high. We had a great summer of basketball with more kids than ever shooting 15,000 shots on their own."
Bexley opened Nov. 27 at Licking Heights and plays host to Licking Valley in its MSL-Ohio opener Saturday, Dec. 1.
Emily Hart and Sara Prater were the only players from a year ago lost to graduation.
Lake, a 5-foot-5 point guard, averaged 10.4 points and 1.7 assists last season. Other guards include seniors Hannah Schmelzer (5-6) and Natalie Schwager (5-8), junior Sidney Woodford (5-1) and sophomore Olivia Riley (5-7).
Stewart (5-8) played forward last season and will see time there and in the backcourt this year. Also at forward are senior Meghan Heckman (5-8) and sophomore Mary Massarelli (5-10).
Torrence (6-1) and senior Jackie Delap (6-2) are the centers.
"Not only do we return kids, we return kids who are significantly better than they were last year," Strode said. "We've always had a couple of those basketball kids. We had that last year too, but a lot of them were underclassmen.
"Now we're getting a lot of kids who care about it and hold their teammates accountable. We're seeing the results in practices and we hope to see the results in the season as well."
Lake agreed the program is progressing.
"This year everybody's put in a lot of work during the summer and offseason, so we've all gotten better as individual players," she said. "We've gotten a lot closer as a team, so we have good cohesion and we've worked on the small things we need to work on on our own."
Delap, Heckman and Lake are the captains.
"Jackie is a self-made player," Strode said. "She really worked hard and is somebody who contributed a lot to us last year. Meghan was out her entire sophomore season with a hip injury, but didn't miss a practice. She played with us last year and works hard and cares about the game.
"Lydia is kind of our heartbeat. She's our gym rat. She's the one at the end of practice who is in my office ready to watch some film. Then she goes to the weight room and asks if I'm going to be there early the next day so she can watch more film."
"I just really enjoy everything about basketball," Lake said. "I can really never get enough. I love watching film and learning more. Every day I think I can learn something new."
Last season, Bexley lost to Eastmoor Academy 45-35 in the first round of the district tournament.
In the MSL-Ohio, the Lions went 4-10 to tie Columbus Academy and Heath for fifth, behind Newark Catholic (13-1), Licking Valley (11-3), Whitehall (9-5) and Granville (9-5) and ahead of Lakewood (2-12).
"I think the league is talented, as it normally is," Strode said. "There's no question that Newark Catholic had a great young nucleus of players last year and Licking Valley will be right there toward the top of the standings.
"Granville is a solid program, and I don't think Heath graduated anybody, either. I look at those teams, and us, battling for that top spot in the league."