The Newark High School girls basketball team hasn't had a winning season since 2001-02, and that was one year after its last appearance in a Division I district final.

The Newark High School girls basketball team hasn't had a winning season since 2001-02, and that was one year after its last appearance in a Division I district final.

Hence, rebuilding confidence is a priority for first-year coach J.R. Shumate, who teaches at Wilson Middle School and has spent the past five years filling various positions with the boys program.

"A lot of our girls were around to experience the boys tournament run (to the state championship) last year," said Shumate, who will make his debut when the Wildcats open Saturday at Watterson. "I think they're ready to take a step forward once we get past some of these injuries."

Senior Sarah Bennett, a 6-foot-1 post player who was honorable mention all-district a year ago, is struggling to overcome knee and hamstring problems. Sophomore Chelsea Steen, a viable option at point guard, also has been sidelined in preseason with a knee injury.

Compounding that situation is the fact that the OCC-Ohio Division looks even stronger with the addition of Pickerington North and Pickerington Central, both of which won district titles last season. They both went 10-0 to win OCC-Central (North) and OCC-Cardinal (Central) championships. Lancaster, Groveport, Reynoldsburg and Grove City also are in the league, won last year by Gahanna (9-1), with Newark finishing 6-14 overall and fourth in the OCC-Ohio at 3-7. The Greyhounds defeated the Wildcats 61-39 in the first round of the district tournament.

"We play in a great league. It's going to be tough," said Shumate, whose team will open the league schedule Dec. 5 at Lancaster. "We definitely just need a boost of confidence. We need to stay in games and compete."

Seniors Olivia Bybee, Paige Pastorius, Tricia Ball and Jordan Swick are guards, and Bybee also can run the point. The seven seniors include 5-8 post players Chelsea Rice and Taylor Backes. Inside, also look for 5-10 sophomore Tanandra Spivey and 6-0 classmate Kasey Evans.

The roster at this point is rounded out by sophomore guard Shannon Keck and freshman point guard Reed Huffman, who starred on a successful eighth-grade team last year at Liberty Middle School. For now, Keck might help back up Bybee and Steen at point guard.

"We have a little size and we'll have to take advantage of that," said Shumate, who is replacing Marty Lange after Lange posted an 18-65 record in four seasons. "I like what we've done in the summer and fall, too, showing toughness on defense and things like that."

Shumate has enlisted the help of former Newark standout guard Brittany Walters to be his varsity assistant. A 2002 graduate, she has deep connections to the program. Her mother, Marjeanne, helped found it and was coachwhen the Wildcats wonLicking County's first district championship in 1979. Walters' father, Dan, followed as coach and won 304 games, leading the Wildcats to their last regional appearance in 2000.