Given his druthers, Newark High School boys basketball coach Jeff Quackenbush would prefer his team play well late in the season as opposed to early.

Given his druthers, Newark High School boys basketball coach Jeff Quackenbush would prefer his team play well late in the season as opposed to early.

As one of the premier coaches in Licking County with a 151-79 career record entering his 11th season at the helm of the Central District's winningest program, however, it's not like he really has a choice in the matter now that two of the school's most decorated senior classes have departed back-to-back.

"It's going to be hard to replace the guys we have to replace," Quackenbush said. "But we've got a bunch of good kids who work hard and are good in the classroom, and that always makes coaching a lot of fun."

The Wildcats have 1,438 all-time victories entering Friday's opener at home against Westerville Central. They return three key players from the team that finished 20-4 overall a year ago and shared the OCC-Ohio Division title with eventual Division I district-champion Grove City at 12-2.

They are senior guards Ryan Dierks and Ryan Sole and 6-foot-2 senior swingman James Kurzawa. Dierks averaged 11.4 points per game last season to earn honorable mention all-district honors for the Wildcats, who advanced to a third consecutive district final before falling 68-52 against second-seeded Dublin Scioto. Dierks made 41.3 percent of his 3-point attempts (38 of 92) and 85.1 percent of his free throws (57 of 67), and the Wildcats are expected to follow his lead.

"The first thing about us is we're going to shoot the ball pretty well," Quackenbush said. "We have kids who are going to shoot the 3, but the thing we're really working on is getting better defensively because we are so small."

The fourth senior is guard Jeremy Knudson, a transfer from Thornville Sheridan. The roster is rounded out by junior post players Brad Woolard, Bret Woolard and Brandon Wiley, along with junior guards Parker Guinsler, Crae Green, Reid Cartnal and Brandon Shackleford, who is a move-in from Pickerington Central.

One year after Western Carolina recruit Greg Avery helped lead the Wildcats to a 24-4 record and the state championship, honorable mention all-district guard Rahlin Watson and third-team all-district point guard Cody Dennison highlighted last year's graduating class.

Dennison, a four-year starter who played in a school-record 91 games as the Wildcats went 75-16, was named ThisWeek's Player of the Year in Licking County last season after he averaged 13.6 ppg and 3 assists. Also departing were 6-4 wing Shaun O'Keefe and 6-3 forward Taylor Huffman.

"Just like last year at this time, we're telling the kids we have to move on and keep moving forward," Quackenbush said. "That's not easy to do when your biggest kid is 6-3. So, it's up to us coaches to figure it out."