As the defending champion of the annual Pickerington High School North girls basketball tournament, Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame will have a target on its back when it returns to compete in the 2009 KeyBank Holiday Classic.

As the defending champion of the annual Pickerington High School North girls basketball tournament, Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame will have a target on its back when it returns to compete in the 2009 KeyBank Holiday Classic.

But that's nothing new for the Cougars, who have won a state-record four consecutive Division I state championships. Every time they take the floor, they know the other team will be ready to put forth its best effort.

Last year, Mount Notre Dame cruised through the tournament, beating Chicago Bogan 49-23 in the championship. The Cougars finished 27-1 after beating Toledo Start 52-38 in the state championship.

"That was last year and we have a totally different team this season, a young talented team that must grow up," coach Dante Harlan said. "We lost four girls who are playing college basketball, including three in Division I."

Among that foursome was Kendall Hackney, who was Miss Basketball. She is now at Northwestern. Also gone are Gabby Smith (Vanderbilt), Ashley Fowler (Ohio) and Evy Iacono (Case Western Reserve).

That group led Mount Notre Dame to a 106-10 record the past four seasons. Their lone loss a year ago was to University (Newark, N.J.) in the Classic in the Country event in Berlin.

Because of their youth, Harlan set up what is likely the most difficult schedule of any team in the state.

They play Start, reigning Division II champion Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown and reigning Division III champion South Euclid Regina. They also play Louisville duPont Manual, which is the top-ranked team in Kentucky and a participant in the Pickerington field.

Also on the schedule is Potter's House Christian (Jacksonville, Fla.) in the Braggin Rights Classic at Harvest Prep on Dec. 22. Potter's House is the top-ranked team in Florida.

The Cougars were 3-1 before Dec. 17. They lost to West Chester Lakota West 52-51 in the opener on Dec. 1.

"We may end up with four or five losses, but I made this schedule to prepare them for the postseason and playing this type of competition will only help," Harlan said. "I wouldn't want to play us by tournament time."

Don't feel bad for the Cougars.

They are still ranked fifth in the country. Other teams ranked nationally in the top 25 which are in the field at North are Radnor (Pa.) Archbishop John Carroll (No. 18) and Dayton Chaminade-Julienne (No. 23).

The Cougars open the tournament against John Carroll, with the winner playing either Chaminade-Julienne or duPont Manual.

Mount Notre Dame is led by junior guard Kathryn Reynolds (12.0 points per game, 2.0 steals) and sophomore guard Raeshaun Gaffney (19.8 ppg). Senior center Bridget Williams (6-foot) is averaging 9.0 points and 7.3 rebounds.

Reynolds is being recruited heavily by Louisville, Kentucky, Dayton and Michigan State, according to Harlan. Mississippi, Oregon, Nebraska and Colorado State have also been showing some interest.

Rounding out the expected starters are 5-11 senior forward Shelby Kissel and 5-8 sophomore forward Breanna Rucker. Kissel is coming off an ACL tear during the district tournament last season. Rucker is averaging 5.0 points and 7.0 rebounds.

Also seeing action will be 6-1 sophomore center Jazmin Hayes, 5-8 junior guard Courtney Tucker and 6-0 junior forwards Carling Daniels and Neschelle Williams.

"We have more size than we've ever had, but we only have two players -- Reynolds and Kissel -- who saw significant playing time last season," Harlan said. "We're still learning. They're too robotic right now. They want me to call out every set, every play. I'm doing a lot more teaching than in the past, but that's kind of made it more fun.

"We've done extremely well against pressure, but not so well in our half-court offense. We need to be more patient because the first option is rarely going to be there against good teams. We have to move the ball, change sides of the floor and be more patient. We need to focus on our focus."