The Centerville High School girls basketball team fended off late threats from Pickerington North in the championship game of last year's Lady Panther Holiday Classic, holding the host Panthers scoreless in the final 4 minutes, 13 seconds to win 39-35.
According to North coach Dave Butcher, it took less time for Elks coach Adam Priefer to request a return invitation for the 27th annual Holiday Classic, which runs from Friday, Dec. 27, to Sunday, Dec. 29.
"They absolutely wanted to come back. They're going to be tough," Butcher said. "They have a good chance to defend it, I would think."
Butcher would be happy with a championship game rematch. The Panthers fell to 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the OCC-Ohio Division with a 49-29 loss to Reynoldsburg on Dec. 20 in their last game before the Holiday Classic.
Centerville's roster is largely intact from a year ago. The Elks lost guard Alex Henning, who was named Most Valuable Player in last year's Holiday Classic, to graduation. She is playing for Bucknell University.
North's only loss to graduation was Christy Macioce, a forward who averaged 14.8 points and 11 rebounds last season and now plays for the University of Dayton.
Shannon Coffee, a 6-foot-5 junior forward, leads the Elks, who dropped to 5-2 with a 42-41 loss to Kettering Fairmont on Dec. 21 in a rematch of a Division I regional final last year. Fairmont, which lost 50-44 to North in the 2011 Holiday Classic final, won 58-46 and went on to win its first state championship.
"Shannon has blossomed into one of the elite juniors in Ohio," said Jim Dabbelt, executive director of The Dabbelt Report, a girls basketball website that concentrates on southwestern Ohio. "The guards at Centerville have done a nice job as leaders and have produced results for the Elks. (Senior) Bethany Krause has developed into an outstanding player and (senior) Shannon Reilly has been a major threat this season."
For the second consecutive year, the Holiday Classic will feature six Ohio teams. The rest of the field consists of Baltimore Seton Keough, Gates Mills Gilmour Academy, Louisville (Ky.) Mercy Academy, Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown, Solon and Sylvania Northview.
Hathaway Brown has won five consecutive Division II state championships.
"Especially with the quality of the in-state teams, we're very happy with the field," Butcher said. "It'll be extremely competitive. We hope we'll be in there. We're getting better, but we have a ways to go."
•Coach: Adam Priefer
•Conference: Greater Western Ohio Conference-Central Division
•Top players: F Shannon Coffee, 6-5, jr.; G Bethany Krause, 5-9, sr.; G/F Shannon Reilly, 5-8, sr.
•The skinny: The Elks averaged 68.7 points through six games, largely because of balance. The highly-touted Coffee was averaging 18.2 points, followed by Reilly (14.4) and Krause (11.0). Krause is a University of Idaho signee. Naddiyah Cross, a 5-5 senior point guard and Kent State signee, is expected to be out until January after rupturing her Achilles tendon last summer. Cross, who averaged 3.8 points, 2.1 assists and 1.4 steals her first three seasons, has been replaced in the lineup by freshman Tori Harrison. Centerville finished 26-2 last season, marking the best record in Priefer's 11-year tenure.
•Coach: Bob Beutel
•Record (before Dec. 22): 3-1
•Location: Gates Mills
•Top players: G Kelsey Dugger, 5-9, sr.; F Jess Janota, 6-3, sr.; G Emily Kelley, 5-8, fr.
•The skinny: The Lancers returned Dugger, who was named Northeast District Player of the Year in Division III, and Janota from last year's district runner-up team. Dugger has signed with Gannon University, a Division II school in Erie, Pa. Kelley has made an immediate impact, hitting four 3-pointers in a season-opening 50-37 win over Lyndhurst Brush on Nov. 29 and hasn't looked back. She was averaging 15.3 points through four games with 12 3-pointers. Beutel, who is in his ninth season, guided the Lancers to a regional runner-up finish in 2011, district championships in 2009 and 2011 and district runner-up finishes in 2010, 2012 and last season.
•Coach: Paul Barlow
•Location: Shaker Heights
•Top players: G Beth Brzozowski, 5-7, sr.; F Dani Lawson, 6-1, fr.; F Christina Passerell, 6-3, fr.
•The skinny: Hathaway Brown has won five consecutive Division II state championships nut returned only one starter from last season in Brzozowski, a three-year starter who has committed to the University of Pennsylvania and entered the season ranked second in career assists and third in 3-pointers in program history. Lawson and Passerell already are receiving Division I interest as freshmen, according to Barlow. The Blazers have been held to 30 points or fewer seven times this season.
•Coach: Keith Baisch
•Location: Louisville, Ky.
•Top players: G Hannah Bewley, 5-7, sr.; G Malerie Martin, 6-0, jr.; G Maria Schmitz, 5-3, so.
•The skinny: Baisch, an assistant coach at Mercy for 13 seasons before taking over the program this season, has a handful of standout upperclassmen who are tasked with replacing 60 percent of the Jaguars' scoring and 50 percent of its rebounding from last season. Bewley and Martin are Mercy's most experienced returnees. Through three games, Bewley was averaging 14.5 points and 5.5 rebounds and Martin was averaging 13.5 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 blocked shots and 2.5 steals. Schmitz won a competitive battle for the starting point guard spot, Baisch said. The Jaguars employ an up-tempo style of play with an intense focus on rebounding and defensive execution.
•Coach: Brittaney Cymbolin
•Conference: Northern Lakes League
•Top players: F Maddie Cole, 6-1, jr.; F Kendall Jessing, 6-1, jr.; G/F Kendall McCoy, 6-0, jr.
•The skinny: The defensive-minded Ladykats returned several experienced players from last season. Cole, who has signed with Bowling Green State University, had a career-high 20 rebounds in a 59-45 win over Holland Springfield on Dec. 7. Jessing had four double-doubles through eight games, including a 17-point, 11-rebound performance against Toledo Start on Nov. 24 in which she also was 13-for-17 from the foul line. McCoy also is a capable weapon both inside and outside. Northview has allowed more than 45 points only once this season. Cymbolin, a native of Metamora in Fulton County, coached DeLand, Fla., to a 69-16 record the past three seasons before returning to northwest Ohio.
•Coach: Dave Butcher
•Conference: OCC-Ohio Division
•Top players: C Morgan Bassett-Smith, 6-2, sr.; G Aubrey Lukacsko, 5-5, jr.; G Emily Thomas, 5-6, jr.
•The skinny: Already reeling from two potentially season-ending injuries, North was dealt another blow when Thomas sustained a knee injury in a 49-29 loss to Reynoldsburg on Dec. 20. The Division I recruit, who scored a career-high 36 points in a 64-45 win Lancaster on Dec. 13, is one of four returning starters for North. Bassett-Smith, who has signed with the University of New Hampshire, is the Panthers' anchor inside but is comfortable shooting 10 to 15 feet from the basket. Sophomore Zharia Lenoir and freshman Danielle Bradley have been other inside presences in the absences of senior forwards Brittany Johnson and Jordan Toohey, both of whom hope to return from injury late in the season. Junior Alayna Khan is an effective 3-point shooter and also can hold her own inside when needed.
•Coach: Jody Powell
•Conference: Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland, Class A
•Top players: G Caitlyn Alley, 5-7, sr.; G Destiny Davis, 5-8, sr.; G/F Imani Hudson, 5-10, sr.
•The skinny: The versatile Hudson leads the Gators, whose roster includes six freshmen. Named a player to watch by the Baltimore Sun in its season preview, Hudson can play anywhere from shooting guard to center and, according to Powell, has honed her rebounding skills and long-range shooting. Powell, who said the Gators are "in a rebuilding phase," has high expectations for her freshmen but isn't rushing their development.
•Coach: Trish Kruse
•Conference: Northeast Ohio Conference
•Top players: G Jordan Bejelka, 5-5, jr.; G Kristen Confroy, 5-9, sr.; F Alexis Stover, 5-10, fr.
•The skinny: Confroy, a University of Maryland signee who scored 20 points against North in the Classic in the Country last season at Berlin Hiland, was named first-team all-state in Division I last season. She was averaging 21.2 points through five games and turned in a 19-point, 11-steal, four-assist performance in a 72-43 win over Mentor on Dec. 8. Bejelka and Stover also have been dependable scorers. Solon, which is aiming for its third consecutive Northeast District title, lost to NOC-rival Twinsburg in a regional final last season.