In recent seasons when opposing coaches would describe the Thomas Worthington High School girls basketball team, the most common word used was "rebuilding."

In recent seasons when opposing coaches would describe the Thomas Worthington High School girls basketball team, the most common word used was "rebuilding."

This year, Upper Arlington coach Chris Savage and Worthington Kilbourne coach Steve Palmer had a new adjective for the Cardinals -- "contender."

Both coaches mentioned Thomas as a team to watch in the OCC-Central Division.

The Cardinals, who finished 8-13 overall last year after losing to Delaware 75-40 in the second round of the Division I district tournament, open Tuesday against at Westerville South.

"That's nice to hear, especially as a senior," said senior Erica Rousculp, who recently committed to the College of Charleston. "Dublin Coffman should be strong, but I see us being as one of the stronger teams in the conference."

A lot of the optimism is because of the number of returnees the team has. Rousculp is a 6-foot-1 forward who was second-team all-OCC last year. She averaged 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds and led the team in steals (58) and blocked shots (47).

"Erica brings a lot of passion for the game," coach Laurie Barr said. "She has that desire to win and get the job done. She's a scoring threat, but she's also a team player."

Rousculp doubled her scoring from her sophomore year to her junior year, but doesn't expect to do that this year because of a solid supporting cast.

Seniors Sarah Granger (6-0) and Kim Lykens (6-0) return as forwards and seniors Kelsey McAlpine (5-7) and Brooklyn Martinez (5-6) and juniors Natalie Carroll (5-5) and Hayley Cross (5-6) are back as guards. McAlpine averaged 6.1 points and led the team in assists (28). Martinez averaged 5.1 points with 21 steals and 21 assists. Lykens averaged 3.1 rebounds.

Also expected to contribute are junior China Oliver (5-0 guard), sophomores Whitney Miller (6-0 forward), Erica Morris (5-9 guard), Mollie Scholl (5-6 guard) and Kim Hoerauf (5-5 guard) and freshman Frannie Frazier (5-10 guard/forward).

"We blend together very well as a team. I think we are more of a team than we have been in the past," Rousculp said. "I definitely think we're going to be more balanced. We will have many other players stepping up and taking control. It makes us a more successful team."

With four players taller than 6-foot, the Cardinals are looking to improve on last year's finish in the OCC-Central. Dublin Coffman, which finished 25-1 overall after losing to West Chester Lakota West 57-49 in a regional final, claimed its fourth consecutive league championship.

The Shamrocks won the OCC-Central with a 14-0 record. Hilliard Davidson (11-3), UA (10-4), Hilliard Darby (8-6), Central Crossing (6-8), Thomas (5-9), Worthington Kilbourne (2-12) and Westland (0-14) rounded out the rest of the league.

The Shamrocks graduated OCC-Central Player of the year Sam MacKay (12.2 points, 7.0 assists and 4.2 steals) and Becca Bornhorst (13.8 points and 8.0 rebounds), but Barr still sees Coffman as the team to beat.

"They lost six seniors last year, but they have a lot of talent coming back," Barr said. "They're well coached and should be solid competition. Upper Arlington is also a well-coached team with a lot of good returning talent.

"The strength of this team is going to be how well they work together on and off the court. They've played together for so long and they definitely have the desire to get wins."