After losing its top six scorers from last year's Division I state semifinalist squad, the Olentangy Orange High School girls basketball team knew it could be in for some rough moments early on as a group of little-used backups and newcomers took on key roles.
Not helping the cause was that junior forward Mikaela Lyons, the team's tallest player at 5-foot-10, missed most of the second half of a 54-34 loss to Liberty in the Nov. 23 opener and didn't play in a 27-20 overtime loss to Worthington Kilbourne in the OCC-Capital Division opener Nov. 25 because of an ankle injury.
The defensive improvement the Pioneers have shown during the season's first three weeks is one thing that has pleased new coach Kelly Joseph.
"I would say our defense is definitely ahead of our offense," she said. "We have shown good intensity on defense and have been scrambling after loose balls. We're still trying to figure out different ways to attack the basket. I think everybody is a little tentative offensively right now."
Orange lost to New Albany 55-28 on Dec. 5 in a league game and to Hilliard Davidson 53-43 on Dec. 7. It was 0-4 overall and 0-2 in the OCC-Capital before playing Delaware on Dec. 11.
The biggest bright spot on offense has been the play of junior forward Lexi Werling, who had 18 points against Liberty, 12 against Kilbourne and seven against New Albany.
Other key players have included senior guard Emilia Martin, junior guard Bri Barron, sophomore guard Lena Mancini and freshman forward Hannah Sargent.
"The warrior of our team is Lexi Werling," Joseph said. "We depend on her a lot. She's able to defend around the rim well, but the other girls are starting to chip in more and more. Bri Barron is a great on-the-ball defender.
"It's exciting to have Mikaela back. She's kind of hard to replace. She's not that big, but I saw her this summer and she's just an unbelievably athletic girl. She's only 5-10, but man she can jump. She's working on her post moves."
Patriots starting to find their way
The Liberty girls team began the season with two seniors and several players battling injuries.
In addition, coach Ron Florey missed a 53-33 loss to Delaware on Nov. 26 because of a personal matter.
With all of that in mind, Florey believes his team is on the right track.
"Considering where we're at with our youth, we're playing about the way I expected us to be playing," he said. "We still need to be healthier. We've had a lot of illness going through the team. But our spirits are good. We still need to do a better job of taking care of the basketball."
Liberty was 2-1 overall before playing Olentangy on Dec. 10 and is 1-0 in the OCC-Central. Its league game against Central Crossing on Dec. 6 was postponed because of bad weather.
The Patriots opened league play Nov. 29 by beating Thomas Worthington 55-39. Although junior forward Kristen Levering and sophomore guard Alexa Fisher were the leading scorers with 10 points apiece, Liberty had eight players score against the Cardinals.
Senior forward Emily Perry, who at 6-1 is among the team's tallest players along with the 6-2 Levering, didn't play in the first two games but scored four points in 14 minutes against Thomas.
Sophomore Samantha Krafty, who was a junior varsity player last year, is expected to miss the season with a concussion. Also missing from the first three games with a concussion was sophomore Savitha Jayaraman.
"Kristen Levering has been scoring in the 10 points per game range, and that's to be expected," Florey said. "(Junior guard) Hayley Hickman has done a great job on the defensive end, as has (senior forward) Melissa Veerman.
"We're still struggling to score points, which is our biggest issue. We make one pass to the wing and think that's running an offense."
Offense coming around for Braves
Figuring out how to create easy shots has been among the goals for the Olentangy girls team during its first few games.
During a 58-45 win over Delaware in their OCC-Capital opener Dec. 3, that occurred at a much more consistent rate than during the Braves' 47-38 opening loss to Teays Valley on Nov. 24, according to coach John Feasel.
The Braves were 1-1 overall before playing Liberty on Dec. 10 and are 1-0 in the OCC-Capital. Their league game Dec. 6 against Big Walnut was postponed because of bad weather.
"Our first game, we didn't get any easy shots," Feasel said. "Against Delaware we had easy two-on-ones and fast-break layups. Our defense started to help our offense get some easy shots. I told the girls that if we don't run a play I'd be happy. I'd rather be in a situation where we're playing some fast-break basketball."
Junior Morgan Horvath scored 15 points and sophomore Kelly Meade had 14 against Delaware.
Not coincidentally, Feasel said, Horvath and Meade are the team's most experienced returnees.
"We only have two girls that played meaningful minutes back from last year, and we certainly showed that (against Teays Valley)," Feasel said. "I know they'd like a chance to play them again."
Olentangy will have an opportunity to avenge two of its four losses from a year ago when it plays host to Orange on Saturday, Dec. 14.
Last season, the Braves lost to the Pioneers 57-52 and 64-60 on the way to finishing 12-2 and second in the OCC-Capital behind Orange (14-0) after winning three consecutive league titles.
"It's rivalry week for us," Feasel said.