Girls Basketball: Westerville North banking on balanced scoring

Scott Hennen
ThisWeek group
Sophomore guard Emoni Finch is one of the key returnees for the North girls basketball team and seventh-year coach Lamont Tillman. The Warriors are hoping to improve on last season's 19-6 finish.

Seventh-year coach Lamont Tillman believes balance will be the key to success for the Westerville North girls basketball team.

Tillman said his players will feature a balanced attack on the court and also will need to handle any problems they might face from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Westerville schools had a mandatory shutdown from Nov. 21-29, which left Tillman scrambling for ways to keep things moving ahead. Also, activities are suspended until Friday, Dec. 4, and all OCC contests have been postponed through Dec. 17.

“We didn’t have school, practice or anything during the shutdown, but I don’t think that will hurt us as much,” said Tillman, whose team was 19-6 overall last season and tied Olentangy Liberty for second (7-3) in the OCC-Buckeye Division behind Westerville South (9-1). “We tried to keep the girls engaged during that week with things like having Zoom calls and watching film online. We want to try to keep everyone progressing and preparing to play games.”

Guards Imari Martin (honorable mention all-district second team league) and Candice Talmadge are the only seniors, and Martin is one of four returning starters.

“We have a lot of people back, so I think that we know what to do and what is expected,” Martin said. “We also have good team chemistry, which helped us a lot last season.”

Junior Charia Smith (honorable mention all-district) is a 6-foot-2 forward who started the past two seasons, and sophomore guards Kayla Curry-Brown and Emoni Finch also started at times a year ago. Junior Lauren Hilderbrand, a 6-0 forward, rounds out the probable starting lineup.

“Our strength will be our balance and our ability to share the ball,” Tillman said. “We have four or five girls who could lead us in scoring on any given night. You can’t just key on any one individual.”

Junior center Ashley Kisor (5-11) and guard Allison Rothmann will be sparks off the bench for the Warriors. Juniors Emily Bartholomew (guard) and Kyra Rocker (forward) complete the roster.

“We’ll be well-rounded,” Tillman said. “We’ll be capable of winning games inside and out.”

Senior center Aja Austin is the top returnee for South, which hopes to contend for league and district championships despite losing two key players to graduation.

Wildcats remain confident 

despite key losses

Despite losing two key players to graduation, South hopes to capture its fourth consecutive league championship and contend for a Division I district title.

Gone are Gabby Hutcherson and Anyssa Jones, both of whom are freshmen on the Ohio State women’s team. They helped South win its third consecutive OCC-Buckeye title and reach a district final before losing 61-57 to Reynoldsburg in overtime last season.

Hutcherson and Jones also led the Wildcats to regional appearances in 2017 and 2018.

Last season, Hutcherson averaged a team-high 14.4 points and was OCC-Buckeye Player of the Year, first-team all-district and second-team all-state. Jones was second on the team in scoring, averaging 12.4 points, and was first-team all-league, second-team all-district and honorable mention all-state.

“There’s life after Gabby and Anyssa,” said second-year coach Jermaine Guice, whose team went 20-5 last season. “We’re young. We just have to keep everybody healthy. We do have a couple of veterans coming back, but other than that we’re pretty young and inexperienced. The season is going to be how we come and approach it. If we play together and play tough, then we’ll have some good opportunities.”

Senior center Aja Austin (6-1) is expected to lead the returnees after averaging 12.1 points and being named second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.

“I’m really looking forward to this year,” said Austin, who will play at the University of Delaware. “I feel like we’re going to have just as good a season as we did last year. I look forward to (being a leader). I really tried my best in the offseason to get better and with all my leadership skills I’m ready.”

Sophomores Nelia Guice (5-8, forward), Leila Jones (5-9, guard) and Tamara Ortiz (5-4, guard) also played key roles a year ago and should make more of an impact this season.

Other returnees include seniors Iman Benlemlih (5-6, guard) and Megan Rispress (5-11, forward) and junior Madison O’Neill (5-3, guard).

Ava Robey is a 5-9 junior forward/center transfer from DeSales who should contribute.

Rounding out the roster are junior Dominique Woodard (5-6, guard), sophomore Lauryn Swanson (5-5, guard) and freshman Zoe’ Guice (5-6, guard).

South is competing in the OCC-Capital with Big Walnut, Canal Winchester, Delaware, Dublin Scioto, Franklin Heights, North and Worthington Kilbourne.

“New league, new teams,” Guice said. “The only team that I’m privy to is Westerville North and they were really good last year and they pretty much have the same roster. They’re still ready to rock and roll.”

—Frank DiRenna

Hester ready

to lead Warhawks

After serving as interim coach for the final 14 games last season, Jermaine Hester has taken over at Central.

He replaced Randy Patton, who stepped down in January during his first season with the Warhawks. Central finished 4-19.

“Last season definitely helped me with the older kids,” Hester said. “There’s some familiarity there, so now we just have to get the younger kids involved. That definitely helped from a morale standpoint.”

The top returnee is 5-9 junior forward Ashley Kerscher, who was honorable mention all-league.

“Coach really boosts the morale of the team and we all trust him, he trusts us and we all work really well together,” Kerscher said. “We want to (improve) from last year, win more games and go as far as we can in the (district) tournament.”

Also returning are senior Sydney Bell (5-4, guard), juniors Taylor Hickman (5-9, guard/forward) and Rugie Kabia (5-10, center) and sophomore Alexis Shea (5-7, guard).

“I was happy because he’d been there all of last year and he already knew the girls,” Hickman said of Hester being named coach. “He’s a good person to have. I thought he would do really well with us and he is so far.”

Hester said freshman Kate Yaussy (5-6) is contending for a starting spot at guard.

The roster also includes junior Madisyn Maxwell (5-6, forward), sophomore Alana Kreuser (5-6, guard) and freshmen Graysen Foust (5-10, forward), Avery Sanislo (5-6, guard) and Avery Vukmanic (5-11, forward).

“I like what I see so far,” Hester said. “I had 11 freshmen come out and I’ll probably play one to three of them on varsity, so I’m really pleased with my young kids. Ashley and Taylor have improved from last year a lot, and they got the varsity experience from last year, so it’s helping them.”

Central is now competing in the OCC-Ohio with Gahanna, Grove City, New Albany, Pickerington North and Westland.

“The league is still tough,” Hester said. “We still have to compete every night. It’s not the league we were in before, but it’s OCC. You can’t take games for granted, especially on the road.”

Central’s only loss to graduation was Mabinty Kebe, who led the team in scoring (12.0), rebounds (7.4), assists (2.0) and steals (2.0) and was named second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.

—Frank DiRenna

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CENTRAL

Coach: Jermaine Hester, first season

Top players: Sydney Bell, Taylor Hickman, Rugie Kabia and Ashley Kerschner

Key loss: Mabinty Kebe

Last season: 4-19 overall

2019-20 OCC-Buckeye standings: Westerville South (9-1), Westerville North and Olentangy Liberty (7-3), Olentangy (5-5), Westerville Central and Olentangy Orange (1-9)

2020 postseason: Lost to Watterson 60-29 in first round of Division I district tournament

NORTH

Coach: Lamont Tillman, seventh season

Top players: Kayla Curry-Brown, Emoni Finch, Imari Martin and Charia Smith

Key losses: Sidney Beverly, Emylee Preston and Alyssa Wright

Last season: 19-6 overall

2020 postseason: Defeated Grove City 50-12; def. Pickerington North 50-20; lost to Reynoldsburg 59-39 in Division I district semifinal

SOUTH

Coach: Jermaine Guice, second season

Top players: Aja Austin, Nelia Guice, Leila Jones and Tamara Ortiz

Key losses: Gabby Hutcherson, Anyssa Jones and Mira Randolph

Last season: 20-5 overall

2020 postseason: Def. Lancaster 56-29; def. Hartley 46-40; lost to Reynoldsburg 61-57 (OT) in Division I district final