The Westerville Central boys basketball team has a new look after falling two points shy of winning the Division I state title last season.
Playing in their first state tournament, the Warhawks lost to Centerville 43-42 in the final to finish 23-3 overall. They set a program record for wins and all of their losses were by one point.
Despite playing a revamped lineup, fourth-year coach Kevin Martin believes his team can remain in the mix in the Central District.
“We’re back-to-back district champions and preparing to make another run to see if we can win another one,” Martin said. “We have a lot of new faces. We only have three guys back that played significant varsity minutes last year.”
The top returnee is 6-foot-8 junior wing player Donovan Hunter, who was the lone underclassman in the starting lineup for most of last season. He has committed to Missouri State.
Brad Leonard, a 6-5 senior forward, missed the early part of last season with a left knee injury. He returned in late December and played a key role coming off the bench.
“We still think about last year, but we have a completely new team this year and we’re focused on what’s to come this season,” Leonard said. “We have a group of young guys and throughout the preseason we’ve already improved tremendously, so there’s a lot more to come. Seeing district in our future and beyond is something that we’re looking forward to.”
Also back is 6-6 senior forward Miles Poindexter, who missed part of last season because of COVID-19 protocols.
“Miles is poised to have a good senior year,” Martin said.
Central finished second (8-2) in the OCC-Ohio Division last season behind Gahanna (9-1). Led by Sean Jones, the Lions again are expected to be the team to beat in the league. The teams meet Dec. 17 at Gahanna and Feb. 4 at Central.
“There’s not an easy night in the league and then our non-conference schedule is as difficult of one that I think I have put together in a long time with some of the teams that we face,” Martin said.
The Warhawks opened with wins over Newark (45-37 on Nov. 24) and DeSales (47-44 on Nov. 30) and were 2-0 before beginning OCC-Ohio play Dec. 3 at Pickerington North.
“We’re excited,” Martin said. “We made a ton of progress in November. I have a really good feel for this team. I’m excited about this group. We have some talented young guys and we have a Division I commit (Hunter) who continues to get better. This is Brad’s third year playing varsity basketball for us. I’m very pleased where we’re at, but now you have to go out and execute.”
The biggest loss to graduation was Tasos Cook, who is now a freshman guard at Stetson after he was named district and OCC-Ohio Player of the Year and first-team all-state last season. He averaged a team-high 19.5 points and 5.3 rebounds, and reached 1,000 career points in a 51-42 win over Cleveland St. Ignatius in a state semifinal.
Central advanced to state when Cook hit a half-court shot at the buzzer for a 45-44 win over Gahanna in a regional final.
Also gone are Quincy Clark, who averaged 11 points and was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district; Landon Tillman, who averaged 9.0 points and was special mention all-league; and M.J. Davis, who averaged 6.5 points and was honorable mention all-league.
•DeSales graduated its all-time leading scorer in two-time first-team all-state honoree Desmond Watson but returns two 6-7 senior forwards in Cruz Sanchez and Atticus Schuler and a group of promising guards.
Schuler, from Westerville, played mostly a supporting role as a junior. Now that Watson, who finished with 1,722 points and now plays at Davidson, and a handful of other starters and key contributors are gone, fifth-year coach Pat Murphy has let Schuler know where he stands.
“This is his team,” Murphy said. “He’ll take our most shots and we’re asking him to play all five positions like (Watson) did. People know him and he’s embraced that role. It’s something he hasn’t had to do. He got to sit back and play off pretty good guys, but now he’s the guy where we’re playing off him.”
Schuler is embracing the challenge as DeSales tries to win a third consecutive district championship, which would be a program first, and its first state title since 1987.
“I’m a leader on the team and with that comes big responsibilities,” said Schuler, who is receiving attention from several Division II and III colleges. “It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge. I am just playing all over the place and it’s something I’m embracing.”
•Coach: Kevin Martin, fourth season
•Top players: Donovan Hunter, Brad Leonard and Miles Poindexter
•Key losses: Quincy Clark, Tasos Cook, M.J. Davis and Landon Tillman
•Last season: 23-3 overall
•2020-21 OCC-Ohio standings: Gahanna (9-1), Central (8-2), Pickerington North (7-3), Grove City (4-6), New Albany (2-8), Westland (0-10)
•2021 postseason: Def. Mount Vernon 65-42; def. Hilliard Davidson 44-39; def. Pickerington North 41-39; def. Hilliard Bradley 56-44; def. Gahanna 45-44; def. Cleveland St. Ignatius 51-42; lost to Centerville 43-42 in Division I state final
•Outlook: Despite their graduation losses, the Warhawks remain optimistic for continued success.
Central should be led by Hunter, Leonard and Poindexter. Each played key roles during last season’s bid for a state title.
Seniors Sam Hood (6-5, forward) and Sagar Shah (5-11, guard) and junior Buba Bangura (6-2, guard) saw limited varsity time last season.
•Quotable: “We talk about (last season). We reference it. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about it, but if we’re not learning from last year and the successes and how we got to that point then I don’t think we’re doing this group justice.” — Martin
•Coach: Pat Murphy, fifth season
•Top players: Michael Sabatino, Cruz Sanchez, Atticus Schuler and Michael Walker
•Key losses: Obed Achirem, Austin Mann and Desmond Watson
•Last season: 19-8 overall
•2020-21 CCL standings: St. Charles (6-2), DeSales (5-3), Hartley and Ready (4-4), Watterson (1-7)
•2021 postseason: Def. Centennial 61-27; def. Columbus South 65-33; def. Jonathan Alder 42-38; def. Chillicothe Unioto 40-37; def. Byesville Meadowbrook 58-44; def. Dayton Chaminade Julienne 51-34; lost to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary 72-50 in Division II state final
•Outlook: Sanchez and Schuler, both 6-7 seniors, predominantly will play inside but likely see time at almost every position as they assume leadership of a team that fell one win short of a state championship. Both are being recruited by Division II and III schools after starting as juniors and serving as inside presences and secondary scorers behind Watson, who scored a program-record 1,722 points and was first-team all-state each of the past two years.
Senior Sabatino (5-10) and sophomore Walker (5-9) are shooting and point guards, respectively.
Junior Isaac Pekarcik (6-1, guard), sophomore Jack Elgin (6-3, forward) and freshmen P.J. Noles (6-2, guard) and Carter Ward (6-0, guard) are among several other candidates to see varsity time.
•Quotable: “We’re not content with our run last year. We want another run this year. Every guy is coming ready to work every single day. ... I can’t wait to see what this year brings us.” — Schuler
•Coach: Shan Trusley, ninth season
•Top players: Semaj Council, Caleb Iheukwu, Noah Lawrence, Carter Reese and Andrew Scurlock
•Key losses: Collin Cook, Cam Ledford and Javen McNeil
•Last season: 10-11 overall
•2020-21 OCC-Capital standings: Worthington Kilbourne (12-2), South (8-2), Canal Winchester (8-5), Big Walnut (7-5), North (6-7), Delaware (3-7), Dublin Scioto (2-8), Franklin Heights (2-12)
•2021 postseason: Def. Grove City 59-50; lost to South 52-37 in second round of Division I district tournament
•Outlook: Lawrence, a 5-11 senior point guard and three-year starter who also started a handful of games as a freshman and averaged 9.6 points and 2.6 assists last year, is one of several veterans on whom Trusley will lean as the Warriors try to shake off a sub-.500 finish. Iheukwu (10.5 points, 5.0 rebounds), a 6-5 senior guard/forward, is a three-year letterwinner, 6-3 senior guard/forward Scurlock is a second-year varsity player and 6-1 junior guards Council and Reese each are third-year varsity players.
All are returning starters. North graduated only one starter in Ledford, who averaged a team-best 11.2 points and 4.8 rebounds last season.
Council, Reese and Scurlock combined to average 16.6 points a year ago, a balance Trusley expects to continue.
•Quotable: “We have a really nice balance in leadership and skill. It’s a nice blend of ages. The older guys are doing a really good job of being role models and leading the younger kids. It’s exciting to see. I always tell our older guys, the best teams are the ones that are led by the players, not the coaches. I see that in this group.” — Trusley
•Coach: Ed Calo, 35th season
•Top players: Drey Carter, Isaiah Johnson and Reign Winston
•Key losses: Jaiden Guice, Will Ortiz and Peter Pedrozo
•Last season: 11-3 overall
•2021 postseason: Def. North 52-37; lost to Hilliard Bradley 41-37 in Division I district semifinal
•Outlook: Led by Carter, a 6-7 senior wing player, South again has high hopes. Last season, Carter averaged 14.5 points and was first-team all-league, second-team all-district and honorable mention all-state.
A day after his father, Wayne, died, Carter scored 18 points in leading the Wildcats to a 74-53 win over Northland on Nov. 24.
Winston, a 6-4 wing player, and Johnson, a 6-4 forward, should be other key contributors. Both are seniors.
Last season, South had a limited schedule because of COVID-19 protocols, finishing 8-2 in the OCC-Capital. Kilbourne was able to play a complete league schedule, finishing 12-2, but the OCC determined the teams would share the title.
•Quotable: “I like how hard we’re working. The kids aren’t afraid to look at themselves, which is a really big thing. For us to be good, we really have to look at ourselves. We have a long way to go, but I always think our team is going to be special. We have some pieces. If we continue to stay together and play hard, we’ll be a tough out.” — Calo
This article originally appeared on ThisWeek: Boys Basketball: New-look Westerville Central Warhawks embrace expectations