Following a 58-41 win at New Albany on Jan. 3, first-year Westerville Central High School girls basketball coach Jim Morgan lauded his team for its turnaround.
A season after earning only one win -- 46-35 over Lakewood last Jan. 21 -- the Warhawks are looking for an OCC-Buckeye Division title and postseason success.
"These girls have bought into everything we've asked them to do," said Morgan, who coached at Delaware the past two seasons. "The atmosphere and the culture have changed and I credit the girls for that. We came in as a staff and said there's some talent here, we just need to prepare it a little differently and organize a little differently. The biggest thing was letting them start believing in themselves. The seniors have really set the tone for us and they've got the culture right."
The Warhawks, who finished 1-22 last season, were 9-1 overall before playing Big Walnut on Jan. 9 and are 3-1 in the league.
Central has received a balanced effort in its resurgence, including the contributions of junior forward Najayah Shepherd, who came off the bench to score a game-high 21 points and pull down 12 rebounds against New Albany.
"It doesn't matter if I start or not, I just go out and try my hardest and just keep the energy up for our team," said Shepherd, who played at the junior varsity level last season. "Coach Morgan told me I would have a chance (to play). I just have to keep working hard and keep pushing myself to do that, and that's what I'm doing."
Sophomore guard Mabinty Kebe had 13 points and senior forward Casey George added 11 against the Eagles.
Junior point guard Michayla Brenning scored 14 points and Shepherd added 13 in a 55-45 win over visiting Olentangy Liberty on Jan. 5.
Central faces a key test in its bid for a league title when it plays host to Westerville South on Friday, Jan. 12.
The Wildcats improved to 4-0 in the league with a 44-25 win over Westerville North on Jan. 5. They were 8-3 overall before playing Pickerington Central on Jan. 9.
South features senior guard Cailin Duffy, junior guard Peyton Guice and sophomore guards Anyssa Jones and Sommer Pitzer.
The Wildcats also should be boosted by the addition of sophomore post player Gabby Hutcherson, a transfer from North who sat out the first 11 games of the season because of OHSAA rules. She was expected to make her debut Jan. 9.
The Central-South game will have extra meaning for first-year Warhawks assistant coach Jodie McClain, who is a 2006 graduate of South.
McClain finished her prep career with 1,050 points. She was named OCC-Central Player of the Year in her junior and senior seasons, earned second-team all-state in 2005-06 and helped the Wildcats win three consecutive league titles.
"I am so looking forward to (facing South)," McClain said. "I'm looking forward to seeing (South coach) Silas (Williams) and some of the girls. They're doing a lot of good things with the program. It's going to be a tough battle and on any night it's anyone's game."
McClain went on to play at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After graduating in 2010, she returned to the area to begin coaching at the club level with former South coach Jim Brenning, the father of Michayla.
Jeff Brenning helped McClain land her current job.
"(Morgan) trusts me and I trust him and the girls trust us and that's all we can ask for because we're trying to get the program back on track, and the girls are really listening and retaining everything we're teaching them," McClain said. "Every moment is a teaching moment for me (and) for him. It's my first time coaching high school basketball. It's been a lot of fun so far and we want the girls to keep rolling."
Morgan said McClain's coaching has been a key in the team's development.
"I've hit the gold mine with her," Morgan said. "I look at her as a co-coach. She knows the game and has a good relationship with the girls."
Before playing Big Walnut, Central's only loss came at Olentangy 59-49 on Dec. 22. Shepherd scored 13 points and Brenning added 10.
"To Olentangy's credit, they beat us the second half of that game and we had some defensive collapses," Morgan said. "We didn't get it done defensively and that's been our calling card all year. (Against New Albany) that was our calling card."
Boys basketball team prepares for South
Looking to stay on top in the OCC-Buckeye, the boys basketball team takes on visiting South on Friday, Jan. 12.
The Warhawks were 8-1 overall before playing Big Walnut on Jan. 9 and are 3-1 in the league, tied for first with North. Central plays host to North on Jan. 19 in the first of two meetings.
South is 1-3 in the league.
Thomas Hickman scored 20 points, Josh McDaniel had 11 and Cam Schroeder added 10 in the Warhawks' 66-53 win at Liberty on Jan. 5.
Hickman scored 32 points and McDaniel added 10 in a 71-64 win at Mifflin on Jan. 6.
"Our guys have done a nice job of sustaining and creating positive energy," coach Donovon Barrett said. "Different players have stepped up and made timely plays when necessary."
Bowling teams to battle South
The boys and girls bowling teams will renew their rivalry with South on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at Columbus Square Bowling Palace.
The boys team was 6-0 overall and in the Central Ohio High School Bowling Conference-A Division before facing Liberty on Jan. 9. It also was 4-0 in the OCC-Buckeye entering that match.
The Warhawks defeated Beechcroft 2,304-1,883 on Jan. 5 as Nick Owsiak had a 423 two-game series.
The girls team was 5-1 overall and in the COHSBC-A and 3-1 in the OCC-Buckeye before facing Liberty.
The Warhawks defeated Beechcroft 1,853-1,192 as Madison Owsiany had a team-high 191 for one game.
Below are the coming schedules for the Central boys basketball, girls basketball, bowling, gymnastics, swimming & diving and wrestling teams:
*Jan. 12 -- Home vs. Westerville South
Jan. 15 -- At Thomas Worthington
*Jan. 12 -- Home vs. South
Jan. 16 -- Home vs. Licking Heights
Jan. 13 -- Central District Preview at Columbus Square Bowling Palace
*Jan. 17 -- South at Columbus Square Bowling Palace
*Jan. 12 -- At Olentangy Orange with Olentangy Liberty
Jan. 17 -- At Marysville with Grove City and Teays Valley
SWIMMING & DIVING
Jan. 13 -- Central Ohio Splash meet at Thomas Worthington (swimming) and Westerville Community Center (diving)
*Jan. 11 -- Home vs. North