Now in its 26th season, the Lady Panther Holiday Classic has undergone several changes over the years, including its name.
However, this year's event, which runs Dec. 27-29 at Pickerington High School North, is like no other in that it includes six Ohio teams. That represents the highest number of teams from the Buckeye State to play in the Holiday Classic, which at times in past years did not include an Ohio team aside from the host squad.
North junior forward Brittany Johnson views this year's Holiday Classic as something of a state tournament given how many teams in Ohio are taking part in it.
"It's like us trying to prove to everybody that we're still a factor and we're better than people think," she said.
"I do like playing out-of-state teams because it lets us see different styles of play, but with more in-state teams, it's girls we've played with before that we normally don't play. And it's easier to scout them for games."
North, which is playing host to the event for the 10th time after Pickerington High School (now Pickerington Central) was host for the first 16 years, won the Holiday Classic championship for the third time last year.
Senior guard Christy Macioce, a University of Dayton signee, had a game-high 21 points to lead the Panthers to a 50-44 win over Kettering Fairmont in the final and was named the event's Most Valuable Player.
North also won the Holiday Classic in 2003 and 2009. In the event's first 16 years before North opened in 2003, Pickerington won eight championships, giving the host team a total of 11 titles in 25 years.
The other seven teams in this year's event -- Centerville, Fairborn, Mt. Lebanon (Pa.) Seton-LaSalle Catholic, Northland, Olentangy, Philadelphia Archbishop Ryan and Toledo Start -- are first-time participants.
"It makes it a little more fun. I think it'll be interesting," North coach Dave Butcher said. "Hopefully, we can get some attendance with more local teams. That's what we're trying to do."
Seton-LaSalle Catholic, the defending Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League Class AA and Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association champion, paces the field. The Rebels went 30-0 last season and had won 56 of their last 57 games through Dec. 14.
Among the Division I college signees expected to participate in the Holiday Classic this year are Fairborn guard Alexis Gassion (Indiana), Centerville guard Spencer Gray (Iona), Seton-LaSalle Catholic guard Angela Heintz (Duquesne), Centerville forward Alex Henning (Bucknell) and Northland guard Alexis Peterson (Syracuse).
"We put forth a conscious effort to make this as top-notch as it can be," tournament director Neil Khan said. "The tournament's been around over 25 years. We think it's still one of the best in the nation."
Coach: Jackie Hartzell
Conference: Philadelphia Catholic League
Top players: G Kalene Coffey, 5-5, sr.; G Kelsey Dale, 5-8, sr.; F Courtney Helm, 5-9, sr.; F Amanda Weindorfer, 5-11, sr.
The skinny: Ryan, which is in the same league as past Holiday Classic participants Archbishop Carroll (defending AAAA state champion in Pennsylvania), Cardinal O'Hara and Archbishop Wood (defending AAA state champion), returns all but one starter from last season, when it finished 13-11. The Ragdolls will have played only three games before the Holiday Classic. They played two games in the Beast of the East Showcase held Dec. 8 and 9 in Baltimore, losing by 35 and 34 points. They play Nazareth (Pa.) on Saturday, Dec. 22. Coffey is a 3-point threat, having made 43 in 24 games last season. Senior guard Melissa Rizzo runs the point, and Hartzell relies on Dale, Helm and Weindorfer to lead the defense.
Coach: Adam Priefer
Conference: Greater Western Ohio Conference-Central Division
Top players: G Naddiyah Cross, 5-3, jr.; G Spencer Gray, 5-7, sr.; F Alex Henning, 5-10, sr.; F Madison Rittinger, 6-0, sr.
The skinny: Henning averaged 16.4 points, three rebounds and three assists as a shooting guard last season. Gray, who averaged 3.5 points and had 75 assists and 33 steals last season, shares time at the point with Cross, who can create havoc with her speed. Rittinger, who averaged seven points last season, has signed with Ohio Dominican. Priefer is looking for 6-5 sophomore forward Shannon Coffee to have a breakout season. Centerville, which finished 18-5 last season, defeated Fairborn 65-45 on Dec. 5.
Coach: Steve Hannaford
Conference: Greater Western Ohio Conference-South Division
Top players: F Krissy Bennett, 5-10, so.; G Alexis Gassion, 5-11, sr.; F Katie Profitt, 6-2, jr.; G Dominique Redmon, 5-6, so.
The skinny: Gassion, a point guard and Indiana signee, had double-doubles in each of the Skyhawks' first five games, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds in that span after leading the GWOC last season in scoring (17.8) and rebounding (11.2). Redmon saw significant playing time as a freshman, and Fairborn has benefited from the arrival of 6-2 junior forward Kayla Patterson, a transfer from Plano (Texas) West. The Skyhawks have lost in a Division I district final each of the past two seasons.
Coach: Dean Washington
Record: 6-1 (before Dec. 18)
Conference: City League-North Division
Top players: P Aliyah Colvin, 6-1, jr.; G Gabby Evans, 5-6, jr.; G Chelsi Hairston, 5-5, sr.; G Alexis Peterson 5-6, sr.
The skinny: Peterson, a Syracuse signee who was named district Player of the Year last season, was averaging 27.1 points through six games. With 6-3 post player Jasmine Weatherspoon expected to be out until January, the Vikings have leaned heavily on Peterson. Her sister, junior Brooklynn Peterson, was among the few others on the roster with significant varsity experience entering this season.
Coach: John Feasel
Location: Lewis Center
Conference: OCC-Capital Division
Top players: F Megan Beidelman, 6-0, sr.; G Courtney Hale, 5-6, sr.; F Katie Heath, 5-11, sr.; F Lydia Hyburg, 6-2, sr.
The skinny: Beidelman has been the top inside player for Olentangy, posting 23 points and 14 rebounds in a 79-52 win over Granville on Dec. 4. Hyburg, a Wheeling (W.Va.) Jesuit signee, also has been a key player in the post. Freshman guard Kelly Meade has provided an outside threat off the bench. The Braves are not expected to have senior forward Brooke Zwayer, a Malone College recruit, back until January because of a knee injury. Feasel picked up his 100th career victory with a 68-28 win over Big Walnut on Dec. 7.
Coach: Dave Butcher
Record: 4-2 (before Dec. 18)
Conference: OCC-Ohio Division
Top players: F/C Brittany Johnson, 5-11, jr.; G Aubrey Lukascko, 5-5, jr.; G/F Christy Macioce. 5-11, sr.; F Jordan Toohey, 5-11, jr.
The skinny: Butcher, whose streak of 23 consecutive district championships was snapped last season by league-rival Gahanna, thinks his team is jelling as it heads into the Holiday Classic. Johnson and Toohey have teamed with 6-2 junior Morgan Bassett-Smith to form a formidable trio in the post, and the Panthers recently got sophomore point guard Emily Thomas back from an ankle injury. Lukascko played point guard during Thomas' absence. Macioce, who can be a presence inside and on the perimeter, averaged 11.6 points last season and was named first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Coach: John Ashaolu
Location: Mt. Lebanon, Pa.
Conference: Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League-District 7
Top players: F Naje Gibson, 6-0, jr.; G Angela Heintz, 5-10, sr.; G Nicolete Newman, 5-6, so.; F Natalie Piagessi, 6-2, sr.
The skinny: The Rebels appear to be one of the favorites to win the Holiday Classic, as they had won 56 of their last 57 games as of Dec. 16 and returned all but one starter from last season when they went 30-0 and won the WPIAL Class AA and Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association championships. Heintz, a Duquesne signee, averaged 14.1 points last season and was third-team all-state. Sophomore guard Cassidy Walsh has verbally committed to Duquesne. Morgan Henderson, a 6-2 sophomore forward, is a move-in from Texas and has provided a presence in the post.
Coach: Leon Kynard
Record: 4-2 (before Dec. 19)
Conference: Toledo City League
Top players: G/F De'Angela Hicks, 5-11, sr.; G Tayma James, 5-7, sr.; G Torie McDuffy, 5-7, sr.; F De'Shayla Mosby, 5-10, sr.
The skinny: Start returns four starters from last season when it finished 19-5. Last season, Hicks averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds and McDuffy averaged 12 points and five rebounds. A post-oriented team, the Spartans also benefit from the returns of Mosby, James and 5-10 senior forward Jasmine Bobo, who combined to average 19 points and 12 rebounds last season. Hicks and Mosby were bench contributors two years ago when Start advanced to a Division I state semifinal.