CINCINNATI — The Ohio high school girls basketball season is right around the corner.
The Cincinnati area has had a Division I representative in the state Final Four for six consecutive seasons and certainly has another excellent opportunity this winter to make it to Columbus.
Official Ohio High School Athletic Association practice begins Friday and the season starts statewide Nov. 22.
Here are nine storylines to watch as the season begins:
MND is the preseason No. 1
Mount Notre Dame, the reigning Division I state champion, is loaded with talent once again this season.
“All our kids had great summers,” MND coach Dr. Scott Rogers said. “It’s been fun to be around and watch them play.”
The Cougars (27-2 in 2018-19) return the likes of sophomore guards KK Bransford and Laila Phelia along with senior point guard Makira Cook (Dayton commit).
“I think there is no better backcourt in the state than those three,” Ohio Girls’ Basketball Report Associate Director Bryce McKey said.
The Cougars will also be led by senior forward Grace Centrulla (Mercyhurst commit) and junior forward Cassie Stainton.
Bransford, who is being recruited by several major college programs, has matured on the court after playing with the USA Basketball Under-16 national team and winning gold this past summer. She played point guard and continues to develop her perimeter game.
Rogers likes the camaraderie and the competitiveness of open gyms this fall.
MND tied Pickerington Central (including old Pickerington High School) and Columbus Africentric Early College as the only Ohio schools to win seven state girls’ basketball titles.
MND opens the season against national power New Hope Academy (Landover Hills, Md.) Nov. 23 in the Journey to the Tourney at Lakota West.
Nearing a milestone
Talawanda coach Mary Jo Huismann is just two wins from becoming the third Ohio high school girls basketball coach to win 700 career games, according to the Ohio High School Athletic Association records.
Talawanda opens the season against visiting Monroe on Nov. 23. The second game is against visiting Badin on Dec. 2.
Huismann, an Ohio Basketball Hall of Famer, has a 698-358 record since the 1972-73 season.
Talawanda was 2-21 last season. Huismann won 696 games at Mother of Mercy High School prior to accepting the Talawanda position in May 2018.
Mercy and McAuley closed their doors and formed Mercy McAuley High School starting in the 2018-19 school year.
State tournament moves to St. John Arena
The 2020 state tournament will return to the storied arena in Columbus for the first time since 2005. The state tournament had been at the Schottenstein Center nearly every year since 2000. This season's tournament at St. John Arena (March 12-14) coincides with Ohio State University’s spring break.
MND played at St. John Arena twice before in the state tournament including being the Division I state runner-up in 2005 and a Division II state semifinalist in 1989.
“There is so much history in that place,” MND coach Dr. Scott Rogers said. “It has that old-school gym feel. I am sure every coach would want to play there.”
The sites for 2021 and 2022 state girls tournaments have yet to be determined.
Loveland senior forward Jillian Hayes and Roger Bacon junior power forward Clarissa Craig will carry the spotlight locally this winter as both have verbally committed to play at the University of Cincinnati.
Craig was a second-team all-Greater Catholic League Co-Ed Central division player last season. She averaged 13 points and nearly six rebounds.
“Clarissa is healthy this year,” Roger Bacon coach Joe Finnegan said. “Clarissa hurt her knee in December and played through it as best she could until needing a procedure that took her out of the postseason. Clarissa is faster, stronger and has worked very hard on her skills. I feel Clarissa is one of the best players in Ohio in her class.”
Hayes, the sister of New Orleans Pelicans rookie center Jaxson Hayes, can play any position on the floor and be able to guard any position for Loveland.
“Jill has really dedicated herself to becoming a complete basketball player for her senior season,” Loveland coach Darnell Parker said. “She has worked hard on her all-around game and increased her range on the perimeter. One thing that opponents will immediately recognize with Jill this season is her quickness and explosiveness.”
Walnut Hills expects to soar
Walnut Hills has plenty of depth from a team that was a Division I regional semifinalist last season, according to coach Adam Lazar.
“Walnut Hills is on pace for another fantastic season,” Loveland coach Darnell Parker said. “I can’t say enough about the job that Adam is doing over there with his kids.”
Walnut Hills (25-2 in 2018-19) will be led by senior guard Sean Kelly Darks (North Carolina A&T verbal commit) along with senior guard Darian Burgin (Alabama A&M), senior guard Aniyah Brown (Division I scholarship offers) and senior Miyah Brooks.
Look for sophomore wing players Katie Collopy, Kaycie Badylak and Lily Kennedy along with freshman Zyaire Miller (Xavier offer).
“We are going to be very athletic and hard to defend,” Lazar said. “And we are going to be versatile – both offensively and defensively. I love our experience and our team unity. I love the swagger our girls have as well.”
Lazar said Walnut Hills has been to back-to-back regional appearances for a reason and believes his players feel disrespected.
“We lost Kennedi Myles (Illinois) but we still believe we are one of the top teams in the state,” Lazar said.
Mercy McAuley (20-5) was a Division I regional semifinalist last season and the team is eager to embrace a tougher regular-season schedule this winter. Mercy McAuley opens in the Journey to the Tourney then plays in Canton over Christmas break before a trip to Berlin for the Classic in the Country in mid-January.
Watch for senior guard Lexi Fleming (Bowling Green), senior forward Ashley Tudor (Radford) and senior forward Alex Smith (offers include Thomas More and Ohio Dominican).
“What I like most about this team is how hard they compete and how tough they practice,” Mercy McAuley coach Nick Baltimore said. “These kids are great to each other off the floor but they realize to get where they want to be then they have to push each other as hard as they can in practice.”
The battle for the GMC
The ultra-competitive Greater Miami Conference is loaded with talent once again, especially with the likes of Princeton, Fairfield, Lakota West and Mason.
“The GMC will be very competitive this year,” Fairfield coach David Loper said. “I believe there will be parity in the GMC this year. Watch out for Princeton, Sycamore and Lakota East. Lakota West and Mason as always will be very good.”
Lakota West (23-3 last season) is led by senior wing Nevaeh Dean (Virginia Tech), junior wing Kailyn Dudukovich (Ohio State soccer commit) and sophomore guard Chance Gray. The Firebirds have won five consecutive GMC titles.
Princeton will be led by multiple players including 6-foot-5 sophomore center Kyla Oldacre, senior guards Willow White and Ashley Davis and freshman guard Sole Williams.
“I like that we have a good mix of veteran players with some young talent,” Princeton coach Jill Phillips said. “I like that this is the group I started with as freshmen when I came back to Princeton.”
Mason will be led by senior guard Alanna Carter, junior guard CC Cary and junior forward Marilyn Popplewell. Mason coach Rob Mason hopes to have senior guard Megan Wagner return sometime toward mid-season.
“So far, this fall, our leadership and team chemistry has been great,” Matula said. “As we get closer to the season, we will need our seasoned upper class players to bring in our younger players and make them understand what Mason basketball is about.”
Sycamore will be led by senior Aliah McWhorter (Wake Forest commit), sophomore point guard Leah Riley and sophomore guard Vivana Clayton.
"Our players genuinely play for each other and our team chemistry is the best since I have been the head coach," Sycamore coach Derek Christerson said. "Our depth will be solid as well."
Watch for Purcell Marian
Purcell Marian narrowly lost to Waynesville in the Division III regional final last season and Purcell coach Jamar Mosley is optimistic about the group that returns this season.
“With pretty much a brand new team they all are coming together and getting along with one another,” Mosley said.
“We will have potentially nine juniors on the team this year and they all have displayed leadership throughout this fall.”
The players to watch include junior center Janay Rose, junior wings Kara King and Jaimone Jones and sophomore wing McKenna Haugabook.
Mount Notre Dame sophomore guard KK Bransford is ranked the nation’s No. 1 guard and the No. 9 player overall in the 2022 class, according to the ESPN HoopGurlz Terrific 25 rankings.
Bransford, who is near 6 feet tall, was part of the USA Basketball Under-16 team that won the gold medal in the FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Chile this summer.
She has scholarship offers or interest from several major college programs, according to MND coach Dr. Scott Rogers. UConn has shown interest.