So far, the Pickerington High School Central girls basketball team doesn't feel much different than it did a year ago -- even with the Division I state championship trophy proudly on display at the school.
"We have a lot of eyes on us so we'll feel some pressure, but we're handling it well and playing like we want to play," 6-foot senior forward/center Jada Tate said. "We haven't let teams rush us or take us out of our game."
The Tigers return two starters in 5-7 senior guard Madison Greene and 6-0 senior forward Maliya Perry from their first state title team since 1999.
Central, which went 28-2 overall last year and defeated Solon 49-45 in the final to win an Ohio-record seventh championship, opened Nov. 25 with a 78-42 win over Springboro in the Journey to the Tourney at Liberty Township Lakota East.
Greene, a Penn State commit, scored a game-high 21 points. Perry, who will play at Auburn, added 20 points.
The losses of 6-3 center Bexley Wallace and 6-2 forward Kyla Whitehead, who now play at Penn State and Dayton, respectively, mean the Tigers will be more guard-heavy. Perry and Tate are the team's tallest players this season.
Perry led the Tigers in scoring and rebounds last season, averaging 12.6 and 6.3, respectively, while Greene averaged 11.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Tate came off the bench in the state final to post a game-high 11 rebounds.
"We're definitely more guard-heavy, but that just means we're going to be faster," Perry said.
"We'll be more transition-based, getting up and down the floor. We have to be better at boxing out and doing the little things that will count more because we're smaller. (We're emphasizing) heart over height."
Junior Nicole Stephens (5-7) and 5-11 sophomore Skye Williams also could be key to Central's guard play.
Stephens averaged 4.7 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists last season.
Williams holds 16 Division I scholarship offers, including Iowa State and Wake Forest within the past month.
She is a transfer from Teays Valley, where she was named honorable mention all-district as a freshman.
"She is super-skilled," sixth-year coach Johnathan Hedgepeth said of Williams. "She has all the moves you could imagine. She's really skilled with the ball and crafty getting to the rim and finishing. We are guard/wing-heavy, so we have to play to that skill set.
"The focus with (the returnees) is learning how to lead the team. We have to look to those seniors to lead the team and bring along the young girls who don't have a lot of varsity experience and buy in to what has been taught here."
Rounding out the roster are seniors Michelle Skaggs (5-6, guard) and Erin Whitehead (5-11, forward), juniors Nadia Jackson (5-5, guard), Felesia Ondongo (5-8, forward) and Aarionna Redman (5-8, forward) and sophomore Jocelyn Tate (5-11, forward).
Central begins OCC-Ohio Division play Tuesday, Dec. 4, at Gahanna. The Tigers split the league championship with Reynoldsburg last season as both teams went 9-1, finishing four games ahead of third-place Gahanna (5-5).
The Tigers play their first 11 games on the road, including five neutral-site games. Their home opener is Jan. 8 against Westerville South.
"We still have to get our team together. We have some new teammates and girls playing different roles," Tate said. "We definitely want to build momentum from last year and try to go back-to-back. I'm excited to see what we're going to do."
Athletes announce college decisions
In addition to Greene and Perry, seven other student-athletes announced their college decisions Nov. 14.
Sydney Charlton will play women's volleyball at Texas Wesleyan, Sydney Doggette will compete in gymnastics at Alabama, Nathen Eberhardt will compete on the men's swimming team at Cleveland State, Jeremiah Francis will play men's basketball at North Carolina, Evan Matthews will compete in men's track and field at Ohio State, Maddie Pletcher will play women's volleyball at Texas-Tyler and Jaydan Wood will compete in women's track and field at Ohio State.
Nov. 25 -- Springboro in Journey to the Tourney at Liberty Township Lakota East
Dec. 1 -- Louisville (Ky.) Mercy Academy in Hoops for Harvest at Fort Mitchell (Ky.) Dixie Heights
*Dec. 4 -- at Gahanna
*Dec. 7 -- at Pickerington North
*Dec. 14 -- at Lancaster
Dec. 18 -- at Groveport
*Dec. 21 -- at Reynoldsburg
Dec. 27-29 -- Title IX Holiday Invitational at D.C. Armory
*Jan. 4 -- at Grove City
Jan. 8 -- vs. Westerville South
*Jan. 11 -- vs. Gahanna
*Jan. 18 -- vs. Pickerington North
Jan. 21 -- Huber Heights Wayne in Classic in the Country at Berlin Hiland
Jan. 22 -- at Westerville Central
*Jan. 25 -- vs. Lancaster
Jan. 26 -- Louisville (Ky.) Sacred Heart Academy at Raatz Fence/O'Shea's Classic at Louisville Mercy Academy
*Feb. 1 -- vs. Reynoldsburg
Feb. 5 -- vs. New Albany
*Feb. 8 -- vs. Grove City
Feb. 9 -- vs. Newark
Below are the coming schedules for the Central boys basketball and swimming & diving teams:
Dec. 1 -- Springfield in All-Ohio Nike Hoops Showcase at Pickerington North
Dec. 4 -- At Dayton Thurgood Marshall
SWIMMING & DIVING
Dec. 1 -- Mason Invitational