Changes for the Pickerington Central girls basketball team this season go beyond the inevitable year-to-year turnover of the roster.
As the Tigers seek their second Division I state championship in three years and third state appearance in a row, seventh-year coach Johnathan Hedgepeth again finds himself having to tweak the team's offense given how guard-oriented the team will be.
"Every year is a challenge," Hedgepeth said. "What we did when we had (2018 graduates) Bexley (Wallace) and Kyla (Whitehead) as two posts, then last year with Jada (Tate) as a semi-post, we had to change to something different. Now we're a wing- and guard-oriented team that has some size off the bench but not a lot of experience.
"We're not just smaller, but we have some depth and we're longer and maybe more athletic. There are positives to it, but it will definitely be a challenge to change again."
Central returns two starters in 5-foot-7 senior point guard Nicole Stephens, a Columbia recruit, and 5-11 junior forward Jocelyn Tate from a team that went 28-2 overall and 10-0 in the OCC-Ohio Division and lost to Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame 52-31 in the state final.
The Tigers lost their top two scorers to graduation in guard Madison Greene (15.7 points, 5.8 assists, 5.6 rebounds) and forward Maliya Perry (13.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists) as well as Jada Tate, who now plays at Tiffin. Greene and Perry were named first- and second-team all-state, respectively. The former now plays for Ohio State and the latter is playing at Auburn.
Central opened Nov. 24 against Landover Hills (Maryland) New Hope Academy, the top-ranked team in the country according to both MaxPreps and USA Today, in Journey to the Tourney at West Chester Lakota West.
Other returnees who saw considerable playing time last season are seniors Nadia Jackson (5-5, guard), Felesia Ondongo (5-9, guard) and Aarionna Redman (5-10, forward/guard) and junior Skye Williams (5-10, guard). Williams, who holds almost 20 Division I scholarship offers, is sidelined because of a left ankle injury that has kept her off the court since May, but hopes to return in December.
"We have a lot of potential to do great things. We just need to keep working on the small stuff," Williams said. "We're a lot more fast-paced. We don't have a lot of post players, so this year we'll be running the court a lot more."
Stephens is recovering from a lumbar strain.
Rounding out the roster are juniors Kyah Ewing (5-6, guard) and Tristen Keuchler (5-10, forward), sophomore Brooklyn Wallace (6-3, forward) and freshmen Olivia Cooper (6-0, forward) and Madison Greene (5-8, guard).
The two Madison Greenes are not related.
Central will begin pursuit of its fifth consecutive OCC-Ohio championship Tuesday, Dec. 3, in its home opener against Gahanna. The Tigers finished three games ahead of runner-up Reynoldsburg (7-3) in the league last year.
A rugged non-league schedule includes a game against Chattanooga (Tennessee) Hamilton Heights Christian Academy on Jan. 24 in Louisville, Kentucky, and a contest against Union (Kentucky) Ryle in Hoops for Harvest on Dec. 7 at Fort Mitchell (Kentucky) Dixie Heights. Hamilton Heights was second and Ryle was 23rd in MaxPreps' preseason national rankings.
"We're for sure underdogs. Nobody is looking at us this year because of who we lost," Redman said.
"We lost two star players, but we still have a really good group."
Below are the coming schedules for the Central boys basketball, girls basketball and swimming & diving teams:
Nov. 30 -- Toledo St. Francis in All-Ohio High School Hoop Showcase at Pickerington North
*Dec. 3 -- Home vs. Gahanna
SWIMMING & DIVING
Nov. 30 -- Mason Invitational