Mark Hess likes what he has seen from his players on the Hilliard Darby High School boys basketball team so far.
The first-year coach has been impressed by their demeanor, particularly their unselfishness. He hopes that quality will help the Panthers improve on last season, when they finished 6-15 overall after losing to Worthington Kilbourne 59-43 in the opening round of the Division I district tournament.
Hess, who spent the past four seasons as an assistant at Olentangy Liberty under coach Greg Nossaman, took over the program from Jim Van Winkle, whose contract was not renewed after one season as interim coach.
"We have a hard-working group of guys who just go out and compete," Hess said. "They are just a group of unselfish players. They aren't worried about stats or plaques. They are worried about getting wins. They have the drive every day in practice to get better."
Darby opened Dec. 4 against Marysville and begins OCC-Cardinal Division play Friday, Dec. 7, at Westerville North.
The Panthers went 3-11 in the OCC-Central last season to place seventh, behind Upper Arlington (12-2), Dublin Coffman (9-5), Thomas Worthington (9-5), Kilbourne (8-6), Westland (8-6) and Hilliard Davidson (7-7) and ahead of ahead of Central Crossing (0-14).
As part of OCC realignment last summer, Darby and Kilbourne moved to the OCC-Cardinal with Hilliard Bradley, Dublin Jerome, Dublin Scioto, Westerville Central, Westerville North and Westerville South.
The Panthers return four starters in 6-foot-3 senior forward Nic Baker, 6-6 senior post player Clay Schmidt, 6-1 junior guard Taylor Van Winkle and 5-11 sophomore point guard David Dennis.
Last season, Van Winkle averaged a team-high 12.1 points and Baker averaged 8.6.
"We have a large class of seniors and a couple juniors and four sophomores competing for time at the varsity level," Hess said. "We have a new system of offense and defense and they have done a great job of buying into what we as coaches have been telling them. They are a great group of guys who are fun to be around and they make every day fun in practice."
Also back are seniors Jimi Booker (6-7, center), Cade Carter (5-11, guard), Nico Painter (6-0, guard) and Kaleb Sislowski (6-1, guard).
"Right now, our strength has been our defense, especially when we communicate," Carter said. "The offense is strong if we are playing together, but if we aren't, we're not as good. We have to play together to be successful.
"We have gone through three coaches (in three seasons), and this year seems to be a lot more fun and interesting. Everyone seems be more involved and everyone is really close."
Rounding out the roster are senior Caleb Day (6-1, guard), junior Zach Cowen (6-3, forward) and sophomores Jordan Clark (5-10, guard), Carter Schmidt (6-2, forward) and Joey Schnieder (5-10, guard).
"The kids worked hard in the fall and the preseason," Hess said. "We have been really trying to keep the intensity level high. We may not be the biggest or the most talented team, but we have to bring a physical and mental toughness to every drill. We have to make practices tough to get ready for the games."