Hilliard Darby girls basketball coach Tay Tufts can't help but be excited.
The Panthers are coming off their best season in school history, setting the program record for wins in finishing 19-6 overall and going 12-2 in the OCC-Cardinal Division to win their second league title.
However, Darby, which also reached a Division I district semifinal a year ago, lost two of its top players to graduation in Annie Rauch and Sydney Wyngarden.
Rauch, a 6-foot-3 forward who is playing for Ball State, averaged 16.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.3 blocks, 2.2 steals and 1.5 assists last season and was named second-team all-district and OCC-Cardinal Player of the Year. She finished her prep career as Darby's all-time leading scorer with 1,258 points and its all-time leader in rebounds with 652.
Wyngarden, a point guard who is playing for Lake Erie College, averaged 13.2 points, 5.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 3.3 steals last season and was honorable mention all-district and first-team all-league. She is the school's all-time leader in assists with 341.
"We had two wonderful seniors that went on play college basketball," said Tufts, who is in his fourth season leading the program. "When you lose two stars like that, it's exciting because it leaves more opportunities for the other girls to step up and lead, and that's what we're seeing now."
Tufts, who was named district and OCC-Cardinal Coach of the Year last season, is leaning on a pair of sophomores to lead this year's team.
Alexis Finnegan, a 5-5 guard who was honorable mention all-league last season, and 5-7 guard Tayen Brown have returned for the Panthers, who opened Nov. 25 at Marysville and begin league play Tuesday, Dec. 3, at Bradley.
"We worked together and held each other accountable," Brown said of the team's success last season.
Finnegan was charged with guarding the opposition's best player last season and did it well, Tufts said.
"We focused on defensive principles and we told her (that) her role was to play good defense," Tufts said. "Now she's starting to step up and score more. (Brown) started as a freshman (early) last year. This year, she's stepped up as more of a scoring leader and she's doing a great job."
Sofia Gentile, a 6-2 junior post player, is back after being limited to three games last season because of a knee injury.
"She had surgery in the spring and really spent the summer focusing on getting back and now she's healthy," Tufts said. "She's really moving well and playing good basketball."
Among the other returnees are 5-7 senior forward Jenna Rasul and 5-7 junior Sophie Williams, who will be the point guard.
"When you've got a girl like Sophie Williams who's been with the program for three years, you're replacing a point guard veteran (Wyngarden) with a veteran," Tufts said. "Jenna was the glue last year. She averaged (3.2) points and (3.5) rebounds for us last year and then she stretched the defense. We don't win a lot of those games last year without Jenna."
Brianna Turner, a 5-10 senior forward, also has returned and will provide depth off the bench.
"We all can handle the ball," Rasul said. "Everyone can handle pressure bringing the ball up the court. I think we're all pretty good shooters and we all have different strengths."
Below are the coming schedules for the Darby boys basketball, girls basketball, bowling and gymnastics teams:
Dec. 3 -- Home vs. Marysville
*Dec. 3 -- At Bradley
Dec. 3 -- Girls: Worthington Christian at HP Lanes
Dec. 4 -- Home vs. Bradley, Central Crossing, Davidson, Franklin Heights, Grove City and Westland