Licking Heights High School boys basketball coach Nathan Clark is looking for his team to build on last season's success despite losing three starters.
The Hornets finished 18-3 overall last season and won their first league championship since the 2002-03 season. They went 13-1 in the MSL-Cardinal Division to finish ahead of West Jefferson (10-4), Grandview (10-4), Millersport (9-5), Fisher Catholic (8-6), Berne Union (3-11), Harvest Prep (3-11) and Liberty Union (0-14).
Seeded fifth, Licking Heights lost to DeSales 61-44 in the second round of the Division II district tournament after having a first-round bye.
"Our goals are to defend our league title and play for the district championship at the Fairgrounds (Coliseum)," said Clark, who is in his sixth season leading the program. "For us to have that type of success, we will need to play as a team and limit our turnovers.
"We have struggled at West Jefferson and Grandview in the past. We need to win on the road as the league title could come down to one or two games."
Licking Heights opened Nov. 30 with a 62-53 loss to Granville before beating Fairfield Union 57-23 on Dec. 4. The Hornets, who opened MSL-Cardinal play Dec. 8 against Harvest Prep, were 1-1 overall before playing Licking Valley on Dec. 6.
Licking Heights returns two starters in 6-foot-4 junior guard Babe Murphy and 6-3 senior guard John Righter.
Last season, Murphy averaged a team-high 13.4 points and was named MSL-Cardinal Player of the Year and third-team all-district. Righter averaged 12.0 points and was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
"Babe Murphy is the defending Player of the Year and leads our team regularly, not just in scoring, but also rebounding and steals," Clark said. "John Righter is our sharpshooter. He will have to be able to step up and knock down big shots for us this year."
The Hornets' other three starters a year ago were guards Tyron Pack and Cameron Tennyson and 6-4 forward Darius Strickland. Tennyson, who made honorable mention all-district and all-league last season, graduated and Pack and Strickland transferred to Walnut Ridge for their senior seasons. Strickland was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district last season and Pack was honorable mention all-league.
"We've got some strong guys inside who may not be as big, but they can do other things for us, too," Murphy said. "We've got a nice group and we'll be focused on doing more damage in the (district) tournament. That's our biggest goal."
Rounding out the team are seniors Willie Carter (6-3, forward), Tyshad Green (6-0, guard) and Tyler Sims (6-1, forward), juniors Blake Beaver (5-11, guard), Doug Benniefield (6-2, forward), Dante Burnette (6-2, forward) and DeAnthony Hosley (6-1, guard) and sophomore Nigel Harris (5-9, guard).
"Our team does not have much size, so we will utilize our team speed to make bigger opponents have to get up and down the floor," Clark said. "We should have as much team speed as any team we face this season. Our strength is our pressure defense and ability to get to the rim."
Against Granville, Righter had 19 points and Murphy scored 17. Green added seven points for the Hornets, who were outscored 20-11 in the fourth quarter.
Righter and Murphy had 15 and 10 points, respectively, against Fairfield Union and Carter scored eight.
"I really like the offense we're running this year," Murphy said. "Last year we ran more sets and this year we're more of a motion offense. There's more trust in (the players) to make the right reads and decisions. On defense, we need to communicate more, be more vocal, but we'll get there. We're going to have another great year."