For many of the Newark High School girls basketball team’s key players, the memory of a 75-59 loss to Toledo Notre Dame Academy in a Division I state semifinal last March has provided a source of motivation the past several months.

The Wildcats charged out of the gate this season with a 60-48 win over defending state champion Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame on Nov. 26 and have looked the part of state title contender for most of the season.

Newark is No. 1 in this week’s state poll, while West Chester Lakota West, Mount Notre Dame, Pickerington Central and Dublin Coffman round out the top five and Notre Dame Academy is eighth.

The Wildcats went 28-1 a year ago.

“I think (the state semifinal loss) was a disappointment,” said coach J.R. Shumate, whose team trailed Notre Dame Academy 33-16 by halftime and ended up shooting just 38.6 percent from the floor while being outrebounded 46-29. “The kids felt like they didn’t play very well in that game. We had some foul trouble and they were a very good team. I think our girls want to show that they’re a much better team than that.”

With a 62-21 victory over Grove City on Jan. 8, the Wildcats improved to 11-0 overall.

They lead the OCC-Capital Division at 5-0 heading into their game Jan. 12 at Canal Winchester.

Newark plays Huber Heights Wayne on Jan. 14 and host Berlin Hiland the next day in games in the Classic in the Country. Wayne was a Division I district runner-up last season and Hiland is the defending Division IV state champion.

Junior guards Morgan Sharps and Katie Shumate again are leading the way for the Wildcats.

Sharps is a Miami University commit who averages 17.3 points, and Shumate is a Kent State recruit who averages 14.3 points and eight rebounds.

Gabby Stare, a sophomore seeing time at point guard, averages 8.5 points and 4.5 assists.

“Katie’s always been like a Swiss army knife for us,” coach Shumate said. “This year she’s handled the ball more, and that’s an area she’s improved in. Gabby has done a very good job of taking care of the ball. Morgan Sharps has done a good job of getting to the paint and obviously can really shoot it.”

The only senior on the roster is forward Taylor Scott.

Other key players include sophomores Bekah Kalas (guard/forward), Tamia Kendrick (guard), Morgan Somers (guard) and Ariana Winbush (guard) and freshman guard Emma Shumate.

Kendrick had 14 steals in a 113-17 win over Franklin Heights on Dec. 15.

“Things are going very well,” coach Shumate said. “I was surprised the first game of the year how we played against Mount Notre Dame, playing three or four sophomores and only one senior. There have been times we haven’t played very good basketball since the first game and haven’t executed very well at times. We still have some work to do.”