The Licking Heights High School boys basketball team has the same four opening games as last season.

The Licking Heights High School boys basketball team has the same four opening games as last season.

The Hornets, who finished 11-10 overall following a 62-60 overtime setback against Utica in a Division II first-round tournament game, play Friday at Bexley and Dec. 7 at Granville before Grandview visits for the home and MSL-Cardinal Division opener on Dec. 11. Licking Heights then plays host to Big Walnut on Dec. 14 to conclude a challenging stretch that comes against opponents that combined for a 58-31 record a year ago.

Bexley shared the MSL-Ohio title with eventual Division IV state runner-up Newark Catholic, finishing 20-3 while advancing to a Division II district final. Grandview, a Division III district semifinalist, was 16-6. Granville went 10-12 while Big Walnut, which lost to the Lions in a district semifinal, was 12-10.

"We'll find out real quick where we are," fourth-year Hornets coach Nathan Clark said. "We went 1-3 in those games last year (defeating Granville 62-57). Hopefully, we'll do a little better this time."

The Hornets lost 68-51 against Bexley, but they later rebounded from that 1-3 start to win five consecutive games and seven of eight overall, which included a 73-64 victory over Watkins Memorial near mid-season. Despite placing fifth (7-7) in the MSL-Cardinal, they still posted their first winning record since finishing 13-8 in 2006-07.

"We've got three starters back and a couple of move-ins who are really going to help, too," said Clark, whose record at Licking Heights is 28-36. "This is definitely the deepest team I've had. We won't lose much going to our bench."

Seniors Deonte Holder (6-foot-1 guard/forward) and Eyob Tadele (point guard) and sophomore Ronnie Dawson (6-0 forward/center) are the returning starters.

Holder, who scored 26 points on the strength of six 3-pointers in the tournament loss to Utica, made second-team all-league and honorable-mention all-district. He averaged 15.5 points as the team's leading scorer, and Dawson was the top rebounder (6.1 per game). Tadele averaged 10.1 points. Dawson's ability to clog the paint will help following the graduation of 6-5, 250-pound Tim Smith, who also made honorable-mention all-district despite a late-season injury.

Clark said sophomore Tyron Pack, a transfer from Columbus East, might be the starting shooting guard. Junior Cameron Tennyson also will see time on the perimeter after playing for a Gahanna junior-varsity team that went 18-2 last season. Another newcomer is 6-3 freshman swingman Alex Murphy, who helped Licking Heights' eighth-grade team win the league a year ago.

Others to look for include senior Brionne Mitchell (guard) and juniors Dewey Rice (guard/forward) and Tywaun Watkins (guard), who Clark said was his "zone buster" playing off the bench. Darius Strickland, a 6-3 sophomore center, adds depth inside. Classmates A.J. Mitchell and John Righter could see time as well while also playing with the j.v.

"Our goal is to go nine or 10 players deep every night, keep the tempo up and save our legs," Clark said. "In our scrimmages we've been able to do that and we've put teams away in the fourth quarter."

Harvest Prep went 14-0 to win the MSL-Cardinal a year ago as Grandview (11-3), Liberty Union (10-4) and West Jefferson (8-6) followed. Fisher Catholic (4-10) finished sixth as Berne Union (2-12) and Millersport (0-14) followed. The Hornets defeated Liberty Union 79-62 in the first round as part of a 6-4 start to the league schedule before tailing off down the stretch.

"We haven't always been able to beat the teams we're chasing in the league so we need to do a better job with that," Clark said. "Grandview seems to have our number, and Harvest Prep has won the league every year I've been here. West Jefferson gives us a lot of trouble, too.

"We're going to have to start beating those teams if we're going to give ourselves a chance to contend."