The Licking Heights High School boys basketball team will begin its quest for a third consecutive league championship when it plays host to Utica on Tuesday, Dec. 3.
However, the Hornets face a different challenge this season, as they have moved from the MSL-Cardinal Division into the revived LCL.
"With seven seniors experienced at winning, that is our mindset even though we will be in a new league," eighth-year coach Nathan Clark said, referring to striving for another league title. "We have high expectations and we think we've got good firepower.
"If we work hard defensively and rebound like we should, I think we'll be OK because our defense initiates our offense."
Licking Heights, which opened Nov. 30 against Olentangy Orange, finished 18-5 overall last season and went 13-1 in the eight-team MSL-Cardinal to finish one ahead of runner-up Grandview (12-2). The Hornets lost to Big Walnut 76-75 in overtime in the first round of the Division II district tournament.
Licking Heights returned three regular starters, including 6-foot-4 senior guard Babe Murphy, who averaged 19.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 3.5 steals last season and was named special mention all-state, first-team all-district and MSL-Cardinal Player of the Year.
"He improved his outside shooting and worked at his ball-handling skills because he'll be initiating the offense more this year," Clark said. "He'll still use that explosive first step to get to the rim, but he should be able to bring defenders out on him more now with his shot."
The other two regular starters who returned are seniors DeAnthony Hosley (6-1, guard) and Douglas Benniefield (6-2, forward). Last season, Hosley averaged 9.6 points and 3.0 assists and was second-team all-league and Benniefield averaged 8.0 points and 7.1 rebounds.
Also back is 6-2 senior forward Dante Burnette, who averaged 8.8 points and 5.8 rebounds and was honorable mention all-league.
"Hosley and Burnette really came on strong in the second half of last season," Clark said. "I think both averaged double-figure scoring in the second half."
Also expected to be key contributors are senior forward Aaron Tiller (6-1) and senior guards Blake Beaver (6-1) and Martell Davis (6-0).
"Tiller goes about 240 (pounds) and is a strong rebounder and he also can use that size to post up and bang around some," Clark said. "Beaver can shoot the 3s. He and Babe can extend defenses."
Completing the roster are junior guards Chase Holskey (6-1), Damian Murray (5-11) and Ryan Singleton and sophomore guards Jordan Highfill (5-10) and Brandon Mims (6-2).
Licking Heights lost four players from a year ago to graduation, including guards John Right and Ty Green. Righter averaged 17.4 points and 2.3 assists and was first-team all-league and third-team all-district, and Green was a defensive ace.
"I don't think one person is going to replace Righter," Clark said. "It needs to be dispersed. We need a little more scoring from two or three players."
Girls basketball team out to better start
The girls basketball team lost its first five games last season as the players adjusted to a new coach in Tay Tufts.
Licking Heights won eight of its next 10 games en route to finishing 11-12 overall.
Having returned all five starters and the bulk of their scoring, the Hornets are off to a better start this season. They opened Nov. 23 with a 53-43 win over Bloom-Carroll and defeated Bexley 50-36 on Nov. 26.
"We're very excited about the season," Tufts said. "We have great size in the post and length on the perimeter. Plus, our bench is deeper and more experienced than last season. We will go nine players deep all season."
The returning starters are senior guards Skyler Ortiz, Alexis Sanidad and Dameras Whitlock and sophomores post players Crystal Jackson (6-2) and Ashley King (6-3).
Last season, Whitlock, who is the team's point guard, averaged 13.5 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 steals and Ortiz averaged 14.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.2 steals. Both made first-team all-league and special mention all-district.
"Dameras has received two scholarship offers and Skyler has received one and I expect both to continue to receive college interest from various schools," Tufts said.
Sanidad is a defensive standout who averaged 5.5 points and 3.2 steals last season and made honorable mention all-league.
Also back are senior wing player Imaani Wilson-Cunningham and sophomore wing player Heather Colopy.
Rounding out the roster are sophomores Payton Caw (guard), Cassie Sanidad (point guard) and Makenzie Storts (6-1, post player) and freshmen Courtney Moore (6-0, post player) and Jordin Spears (guard).
Against Bexley, Sanidad had 14 points and Whitlock and Wilson-Cunningham scored 13 and 10, respectively.
"Six of the nine girls who will play every game run sprints in track, so we will be a fast team, both on offense and defense," Tufts said. "We will look to push the ball and be in attack mode while running a triangle-motion set of offensive plays."
Tufts also expects his team to be sound defensively.
"We will have an extensive focus on defense," he said. "We've been stressing quick hands and quick feet. We have conditioned our girls to play the entire game in either a full-court man or full-court press."
Licking Heights, which lost to DeSales 66-51 in the first round of the Division II district tournament last season, opened LCL play Nov. 30 at Utica and will play host to Granville in a league game Thursday, Dec. 5.
The Hornets went 6-6 in the MSL-Cardinal last season to place fourth behind champion Liberty Union (11-1).
"Being in a new league, we're just going to have to see firsthand how good these teams are and who the favorites are," Tufts said. "Right now, it is too soon to tell."