Dublin Coffman High School hockey coach Eric Park believes his team's youth and inexperience caught up with it at times last season, but he doesn't expect that to happen this season.
In fact, he sees no reason why the Shamrocks shouldn't be in the hunt for the Capital Hockey Conference-Red Division championship as well as the Blue Jackets Cup and district titles.
Last season, Coffman finished 16-16-1 overall, placed fourth in the CHC-Red, lost to Upper Arlington 3-2 in triple overtime in the first round of the Blue Jackets Cup and reached a district semifinal before losing to Dublin Jerome 4-0.
"Last year, we were just trying to survive and be safe while our young guys learned all of the basics of how we play varsity hockey under our new coaching staff," said Park, who is in his second season leading the program. "We had some games where we struggled against the better teams we played last year, but I've been impressed with how much our young guys have grown during the offseason. It seems like all of our juniors have grown about six inches and gotten stronger and all of our players' skills have improved. I really do think we're ready to do better than we did last year, and I think we have a chance to win our league and district."
Coffman opened in the Midwest Thanksgiving Classic held Nov. 23-25 at Chiller Dublin, going 4-0. The Shamrocks defeated DeSales 4-3 on Nov. 23, beat Cincinnati Sycamore 5-0 and Strongsville 11-1 on Nov. 24 and defeated Olentangy Orange 4-3 on Nov. 25.
Coffman begins CHC-Red play Sunday, Dec. 2, against Cincinnati Moeller at Cincinnati Gardens.
The Shamrocks lost six players from a year ago to graduation, including their top forward in Kevin Putnam, their top defenseman in Eric Gute and their No. 1 goaltender in Kyle Burich.
Last season in 17 league games, Putnam scored a league-leading 24 goals and had 15 assists, Gute had nine assists and Burich had a .937 save percentage.
Coffman returns five players with more than one letter in senior forwards Chris DiBiase, Ian Flinders, Gunner Gruehl and Allen Yi and junior forward Caleb Powell.
Gruehl had 15 goals in league play last season. Flinders had 35 goals and 33 assists as a sophomore but missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.
Flinders, Gruehl and Yi are serving as team captains.
Also back are eight forwards in senior Brent Vaughan and sophomores Nate Babner, Mark Heneman, Matt King, J.T. Latshaw, Kyle Marcinick, Zachary Niemiec and Jason Strine, senior goalie Cody Laux and four defensemen in junior Nathan Rusin and sophomores Tyler Burich, Trevor Rawdon and Thomas Tate. Marcinick had 15 goals and 12 assists in league play last season.
Also on the team are five former club players in sophomores Austen Hayden (forward) and defenseman Jacob Richard (defenseman) and freshmen Cameron Fiorita (defenseman), Ryon Malas (forward) and Grant Powell (goalie).
"Last year, we were pretty one-dimensional, relying on Putnam's line to do most of our scoring," Park said. "This year, we've had scoring from all four of our lines in scrimmages, so we'll be tougher to defend."
Last season, Coffman went 10-6-1 (21 points) in the CHC-Red to finish behind Jerome (14-1-1-1, 30), Olentangy Liberty (12-4-1, 25) and Moeller (10-4-1-2, 23) and ahead of St. Charles (9-8, 18).
Seeded sixth in the district tournament, the Shamrocks had a first-round bye and defeated Thomas Worthington 3-2 in the second round and third-seeded UA 8-1 in the third round before losing to top-seeded Jerome.
"We'd like to win the CBJ Cup and possibly go to the state final four," Gruehl said. "We feel like we've got a shot if we work hard and don't play down to the other team's level."