The Licking Heights High School boys basketball team's opener Friday at Bexley, last year's MSL-Ohio Division runner-up, represents just one of the changes on the non-league schedule.

The Licking Heights High School boys basketball team's opener Friday at Bexley, last year's MSL-Ohio Division runner-up, represents just one of the changes on the non-league schedule.

The Hornets also have lined up new opponents such as Division I Gahanna (Jan. 20) and Division II Granville (Dec. 23) and Lakewood (Jan. 6), also keeping a game against Division I Watkins Memorial on Jan. 3. The Blue Aces are considered a favorite in the MSL-Ohio.

"Quite honestly, we did the schedule thinking we'd have a few more returning kids," second-year coach Nathan Clark said. "We might take our lumps, but we felt it was our best move if we want to stay competitive in the tournament.

"The Gahanna game especially, that one might be over our heads, but when we come back and play them again (next season) we can use it as a benchmark in terms of our growth."

That isn't to say he's selling this year's team short even with senior guard Chris Adams, the leading returning scorer (11.0 points), sidelined until January with a knee injury.

"We'll pick up the tempo a little bit, try to score off our defense," Clark said. "We really want to hang our hat on defense, getting into the passing lanes and switching screens. We'll still run sets but we'll emphasize some other things, too."

The Hornets finished 10-12 overall a year ago and proved they could compete in a higher division, defeating Linden-McKinley 75-65 in the first round of the Division II district tournament before squandering a 16-point lead in a 75-71 loss to Mifflin in the second round.

"Man, that Mifflin game still haunts me," said Clark, who has added two new assistants in Todd Barnes, who previously has worked with teams in the Columbus City League as well as Reynoldsburg, and a former high-school friend, Jarrod Baugh, who played with Clark at Zanesville Maysville and has served an assistant there. "One minute we're thinking about facing B.J. Mullens and (top-seeded Canal Winchester in a district semifinal) and the next we're done."

With Adams out, the only returning letterwinner for now is junior point guard Erik Pannel. Two senior transfers should help and both are expected to start. Dante Nelms, a 6-foot-4 center, is from Gahanna, although he didn't play there last year. Morgan Yates was a starting shooting guard last year at Gahanna Christian. The fourth senior is 6-5 forward and post player Richard Smith.

Junior Devon Mattison is a 6-2 left-handed guard, and the team's defensive catalysts might include junior guards Nick Rubbo and Peter Jeffy.

Clark has high hopes for sophomore guards Eyub Tadele and Deonte Holder to take over for graduate Ibrahim Ibrahim, who averaged 17.7 points a year ago and was third-team all-district. Kilian Crankfield, a 6-6 center, also was among the graduates.

The Hornets went 8-6 last year in the MSL-Cardinal Division won by Harvest Prep (14-0). The first league is Dec. 9 at home against West Jefferson.

"Harvest Prep is probably the favorite. They graduated Dane Givner (first-team all-district in Division IV), but still have a lot back," Clark said.

"I think we'll jump in the mix again, and I definitely see us being a better team on Feb. 5 than onDec. 5."