It is hard not to look at Division I girls basketball and not instantly think of Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame. The Cougars have won three of the last four state champions, including a state runner-up finish in 2005. With a loaded roster returning for the 2007-08 campaign, MND has to get the early nod as the favorite in the big-school division.
The Cougars headline the southwest area of the state that is chock full of talent. Regional finalist West Chester Lakota West returns every player from last year’s roster and is led by one of the top players in the country in Amber Gray. Cincinnati Oak Hills could make some noise and Dayton-Chaminade-Julienne is always a contender in Division I.
Three of the four teams that reached Columbus last year for the first time (Stow-Munroe Falls, Findlay, Pickerington North) appear to all be facing a rebuilding year with key losses to graduation.
Could this be the year North Canton Hoover gets over the hump? The Lady Vikings have won district titles in four of the last five years after winning the state title in 2002 and Hoover has the talent to make another run at Columbus.
The following is a look at the top players and teams to watch in Division I this season:
* Amber Gray, 6-1, F, Sr., West Chester Lakota West – The Tennessee recruit led the No. 4-ranked Lady Firebirds to the regional finals. She averaged 20.9 points per game and was a first-team All-Ohio selection.
* Kendall Hackney, 6-1, F, Jr., Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame – Averaged 11.5 ppg as a sophomore for state champ MND and had a double-double in the title game with 21 points and 14 rebounds.
* Emilee Harmon, 6-2, G, Jr., Pickerington Central – Earned first-team All-Ohio honors as a sophomore scoring 20.3 ppg for the regional semifinalist Lady Tigers (21-4).
* Channing Hillman, 6-0, F, Sr., Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame – Contributed significantly for defending state champion Cougars, earning Division I honorable mention All-Ohio recognition. Tallied eight points and six rebounds in the state title game and is committed to UTEP.
* Tia McBride, 6-2, F, Sr., Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame – Averaged 13.1 ppg for state champion MND as a junior. Committed to Georgetown.
* Brittany Orban, 5-11, F, Sr., North Canton Hoover – Was a first-team All-Ohio selection leading the Lady Vikings (21-4) to the regional finals dropping 21.6 ppg. She also averaged 22.7 ppg as a sophomore. Committed to Northwestern.
* Jessica Pachko, 6-1, F, Sr., Cincinnati Oak Hills – The Marquette recruit contributed 13.7 ppg last season and pulled down 5.0 rpg for the Lady Oaks (22-3).
* Gabby Smith, 5-10, G, Jr., Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame – Smith averaged 9.3 ppg as a sophomore for MND’s D-I state championship team.
* Tracy Snider, 5-9, G, Sr., Lancaster – Earned second-team All-Ohio honors, scoring 20.6 ppg. Committed to Ohio U.
* Tiera Stephan, 5-7, PG, Sr., Dayton Chaminade-Julienne – Rated as the No. 13 PG in the country by HoopGurlz.com and the No. 68 prospect overall.
* Amber Stokes, 5-8, PG, Sr., Gahanna Lincoln – A transfer from Columbus DeSales, Stokes is rated as the No. 63 overall prospect in the country and No. 21 PG by HoopGurlz.com.
* Jessica Tamerlano, 6-0, F, Jr., North Royalton – Earned third-team All-Ohio honors with 17.0 ppg for the district semifinalist Lady Warriors. Gave up soccer this year to focus on hoops.
* India Warfield, 6-1, F, Sr., Dayton Chaminade-Julienne – Committed to St. Louis University.
* Erin Wisner, 6-2, Sr., C, Solon – The Miami (Ohio) recruit was a member of the 2006 state runner-up Lady Comets team and earned Division I special mention All-Ohio honors last year for district finalist Solon.
* Courtney Schiffauer, 6-1, Sr., F, Youngstown Boardman – Michigan State recruit averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds and six assists last year before coming down with mono and missing postseason.
Teams To Watch
* Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame – MND is quickly becoming a girls basketball dynasty in Ohio claiming three of the last four Division I state titles including a state runner-up finish in 2005.
The coaching transition last season with long-time head coach Scott Rogers taking a seat on the bench while making way for assistant Dante Harlan was seamless as the Cougars finished 23-4 and raised the trophy in Columbus. With four starters returning, including Hackney, McBride, Smith and junior G Ashley Fowler (5.0 ppg) in addition to depth on the bench with Hillman, MND has to be considered the preseason favorite in Division I.
Rogers has moved on this season to coach the Cincinnati Indian Hill girls squad, of which, his daughter Aubrey is a member.
* Stow-Munroe Falls – The Lady Bulldogs put up a vicious fight last year in the state championship game but MND outlasted Stow 63-43 in their first trip to the state tournament.
It appears as though it will be a rebuilding year for the 2007-08 campaign as Stow graduated all five senior starters, including second-team All-Ohio selection Lianna Jennings who is off to John Carroll after transferring from Bowling Green earlier this school year. Head coach Bob Podges is entering his ninth season at Stow and has a 133-54 record leading the Lady Bulldogs.
* Pickerington North – Like Stow, Pickerington North made its first trip to Columbus last year finishing No. 11 in the final AP poll with a 22-4 record. And like Stow this season, the Lady Panthers have some holes to fill left behind by graduation.
Junior F Kelsey Price (8.2 ppg) is the lone returning starter for North. Junior G Jordan Smithberger saw some time last year as did sophomore G Nicole Olszewski and junior forward Jen Rennell but they will have to step into leadership roles this season if the Lady Panthers are going to be successful.
* Findlay – Findlay also made its first trip to the state tournament last year falling to MND in the semifinals 56-41 finishing with a 21-5 record and ranked No. 7 in the final AP poll.
Gone are three starters from last year’s team, including Division I co-player of the year Carlee Roethlisberger, who is now at Oklahoma. Returning, however, is senior C Jonette McQueen (7.5 ppg) and senior guard Ashley Peterson (6.1 ppg). Senior G Ashley Sottoway will step into a starting role after seeing significant time on the court last year as well as senior 6-3 C Christina Cruse.
* West Chester Lakota West – Gray and the Lady Firebirds fell to MND in the regional finals last year 58-49 after falling to the Cougars in the regional semifinals the previous year.
With everyone returning from last year’s team, Gray, a Tennessee recruit rated as the No. 2 forward in the country and No. 4 prospect overall, will try to get Lakota West over that hump this year and lead the Lady Firebirds to Columbus. Junior F Alexis Rogers (10 ppg, 6.2 rpg) will complement Gray nicely as well as St. Francis (Pa.) recruit Quinessa Johnson (4.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg), junior G Tessa Elkins (7.3 ppg, 3 rpg) and senior G Allison Whitenack (4 ppg, 1.2 rpg).
* North Canton Hoover – The Lady Vikings have been knocking on the door the last few years finishing a regional finalist the past two seasons including district champs four of the last five.
They finished 21-4 last year and ranked No. 6 in the final AP poll. Hoover graduated four seniors but Orban is the toast of the team and will lead a group of seniors that has seen significant playing time, including F Kylie Baughmgardner, G Whitney Burrell, G Bridgette Chamberlain and G Jackie Nicodemo. Junior G Jen Iafelice headlines the underclassmen.
* Other Teams To Watch – Mentor (20-4), Shaker Heights (19-6), Dublin Scioto (25-1), Pickerington Central (21-4), Brunswick (19-5), Dayton Chaminade-Julienne (17-7), Strongsville (20-3), Toledo Central Catholic (18-8), Cincinnati Oak Hills (22-3) and Cincinnati Winton Woods (21-3).