The Licking Heights High School boys basketball team has started strong with several players making key contributions for the first time.
The Hornets entered a Dec. 22 league game against West Jefferson having won five consecutive games. They improved to 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the MSL-Cardinal Division by beating visiting Liberty Union 75-36 on Dec. 18.
Despite returning only two starters from a team that finished 18-3 overall and won the league title a year ago, coach Nate Clark said he is not surprised by Licking Heights' start.
"It's true we have many guys playing new roles for us, but we had confidence all along," Clark said. "The junior varsity went 17-3 last season, so there's a lot of talent in the program.
"Originally, most of the newcomers to the varsity were going to be role players and come off the bench. But they worked hard all summer and the door was open for them to step in and they haven't missed a beat."
Through five games, senior guard John Righter was averaging 18.2 points and 4.5 rebounds, and junior guard Babe Murphy was averaging 16.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.0 steals.
Murphy and Righter were joined in the starting lineup last season by guards Tyron Pack and Cameron Tennyson and forward Darius Strickland. Tennyson graduated and Pack and Strickland transferred to Walnut Ridge for their senior seasons.
Against Liberty Union, Righter made three 3-pointers and finished with 24 points and six assists, while Murphy had 21 points and eight rebounds and was 9-for-10 from the field.
Stepping up to contribute have been senior forward Willie Carter, senior guard Tyshad Green, junior point guard DeAnthony Hosley and junior forwards Doug Benniefield and Dante Burnette. Carter scored eight points against Liberty Union.
"We've had different guys step up every game," Clark said. "With Righter and Murphy getting a lot of attention, we've had others contribute offensively. But more than that, we're getting strong defense, rebounding and ball-handling from many of those guys when we need it and that's what it's going to take. Good teams can try to take away one or two go-to players, but the less reliant we are on them, the better we'll be in the long run."
Carter scored 10 points in a 57-23 win over Fairfield Union on Dec. 4, Benniefield had nine points and 13 rebounds in a 60-46 win over Grandview on Dec. 14 and Hosley had 13 points and seven assists in a 77-38 win over Harvest Prep on Dec. 8.
"Ty Green had 11 points against Grandview and he began the season on the bench but has become a starter due to his excellent defensive pressure all over the court," Clark said. "He's the best on-ball defender we have. He's quick and physically strong. His work forces quick passes or sets up (defensive) traps for us, and Babe Murphy is great at anticipating passes and jumping in for the steals. Green is getting the defensive assist and Murphy is racking up the steals.
"They're doing their jobs. Benniefield, Carter and Hosley are all averaging around six points per game and Benniefield also is averaging 6.2 rebounds."
The Hornets were allowing an average of 41.4 points through six games, and Clark said that number is actually better than at first glance.
"Against Licking Valley (89-57 win Dec. 6), we allowed 22 in the first half," Clark said. "Against Grandview, we allowed 18. Our defensive average in the first half has been tremendous. That's something we need to continue in order to repeat as MSL champions."
Girls basketball team wins third in a row
After opening with five consecutive defeats, the girls basketball team beat Lakewood 38-32 on Dec. 18 for its third win in a row.
"The girls are starting to learn exactly what we want," first-year coach Tay Tufts said. "I'm their third coach in four years, so they've had three different philosophies. For example, they're playing man-to-man defense full court for the first time. They've played zone since the seventh grade.
"Our scorers, Skyler Ortiz, Courtney Jones and Alyssa Stanley, are beginning to step up, Dameras Whitlock is improving daily at point guard and we're playing together as a team."
Ortiz scored 16 points and Whitlock added eight points, six assists, six steals and five rebounds against Lakewood. The Hornets outscored the Lancers 13-7 in the fourth quarter.
Licking Heights, which played Berne Union on Dec. 21, began the winning streak by defeating Franklin Heights 56-43 on Dec. 13.
Jones scored 21 points, Ortiz had 10 and Whitlock added eight in a 39-35 win over West Jefferson on Dec. 15.
"Dameras dictated the game without scoring a bunch and that's something she's growing into right now," Tufts said. "She started the season a little rough, but she's playing real well now. Overall, our confidence didn't waiver. We preached patience, not panic. We were seeing improvement in practices.
"I think the turning point came in the (49-29) loss to Big Walnut (on Dec. 4). We led 17-9 after the first quarter, but we weren't able to put together a good second half. From that point forward, we've been getting more consistency, which is the progression factor we speak about as a team."