The Hilliard club hockey team's season has hit the gritty stage.

The Hilliard club hockey team's season has hit the gritty stage.

Twenty-one days between games were filled with numerous workouts that included push-ups, running and stick-handling skills. When the Wildcats returned Jan. 8 from their layoff - they hadn't played since defeating the Westerville Warcats 4-3 on Dec. 18 - their successful ways continued as they tied Fremont at 1 and defeated Pemberville Eastwood 7-1.

"Push-ups aren't the most fun things to do, but we have to," senior forward Aaron Applegarth said. "It's showing. We're not losing."

The biggest difference is the lopsided wins Hilliard enjoyed early in the season haven't been as frequent lately. The Wildcats, who are 26-4-2 overall and 12-1-1 in the Greater Columbus High School Club Hockey League and entered the week ranked No. 1 in High School Hockey Online's state club poll, have been winning more competitive games.

"We need to start working on that," senior forward Drew Kennedy said. "We were blowing teams out at the beginning and as they get better, we need to step up to that next level and pull out the close ones. If we get a little bit more energy, we can win a lot more."

The Wildcats remained atop the GCHSCHL last weekend, fighting from behind twice to tie host Newark at 2 on Jan. 19 and defeat Westerville 6-1 on Jan. 21.

Newark, which is 9-3-2 (20 points) in the league and in second place behind Hilliard (25), handed the Wildcats their only league loss, 2-0 on Nov. 17. The teams play one more time this season, Feb. 5 at OhioHealth Ice Haus.

Hilliard, which is 5-2-1 since its layoff, averaged 7.3 goals through its first 20 games - a stretch that included eight games with nine or more goals. Junior forward Kyle Majher has a team-high 35 goals.

The Wildcats are averaging 5.1 goals in January, but assistant coach Todd Piche has been pleased with many other facets of the team's play in recent weeks, including its performance in an 8-3 win over the Batavia (N.Y.) Ramparts on Jan. 15 in a Martin Luther King tournament in Cleveland.

"We had a really good game against Batavia, probably the best game I've seen them play all year," said Piche, who oversaw the team for several games as coach Wade Bartley was out of town for family business. "It didn't seem like anybody was taking the night off. It was a morning game, but they had good puck movement. They're starting to do a lot of things Wade and I have been working on, just making simple plays rather than trying to be too fancy. You play against some weaker teams and you get in the habit of just getting by, but we're starting to learn what it takes to play against some of these tougher teams. It's nice to see that.

"We were just blowing teams out (early in the season), then you get in a tight one and the other team scores one goal before us and the guys start looking at each other thinking, 'What's going on? We're not supposed to be down.' I think a couple close games here and there have opened their eyes and showed them we can battle back. They know they can get back in games. It's definitely a learning experience."

Hilliard's quest for a second consecutive GCHSCHL championship continues Saturday, Jan. 28, against Athens at Chiller Easton and Sunday, Jan. 29, against PRPC at the Ice Haus.

"Most of the teams have gotten better and so have we," junior forward Kenyon Clevenger said. "We're still playing pretty good hockey."