The Hilliard club hockey team was one period away from winning its first state championship and qualifying for the national club tournament for the first time, only to see both slip away with a 3-1 loss to Medina in the championship game of the Buckeye Cup on March 10 at Cincinnati Gardens.
The Wildcats led 1-0 after two periods but fell behind 2-1 in the third before Medina sealed the outcome with a late empty-net goal. Medina captured its third state title in the Buckeye Cup's nine-year history, having won the first two in 2005 and 2006, and qualified for the USA Hockey National Championships, which are being held March 20-24 in Coral Springs, Fla.
"On one hand, this hurts really bad because we were so close to the championship and qualifying for nationals," coach Wade Bartley said. "On the other hand, if you had told me at the beginning of this season that we would be in the state final, we would have been so delighted about that. It would've been such a huge surprise."
The 12-team Buckeye Cup consisted of four teams from the Greater Columbus High School Club Hockey League, four from the North Coast High School Club Hockey League and four from the Cincinnati High School Hockey League.
Hilliard won the GCHSCHL regular-season title with a 15-3-2 record (32 points), finishing ahead of Newark (14-2-4, 32), Westerville (12-7-1, 25), Northeast (7-10-3, 17), PRPC (7-13, 14) and Athens (0-20, 0).
Newark won the league tournament, the Blue Jackets Cup, by defeating Hilliard 2-0 in the championship game Feb. 24 at Chiller North.
But the Wildcats exacted a measure of revenge by beating the Generals 4-3 in a state semifinal March 10 before falling to Medina in the final. Medina defeated Fremont 3-1 in the other semifinal March 10.
Hilliard entered the semifinal with a 1-3-2 record against Newark on the season, with the Wildcats' only win coming in their first matchup, 7-2 on Nov. 15.
"It was a great motivator to play Newark in the semifinal because we wanted redemption for the Blue Jackets Cup," said Bartley, who lauded the play of forward Kenyon Clevenger, a Davidson High School senior. "We barely held them off for the league title, but they got us in the (league) tournament, so this was like the rubber match and we worked extremely hard and played very inspired hockey. We led 4-2 and killed off three penalties in the last period. They got their final goal after they pulled their goalie late.
"Against Medina, they got a few lucky bounces in the third period and they took advantage of them. They're a great club and did what great clubs do with good opportunities. But I'm so proud of our guys and the effort they put out this weekend."
Hilliard went 3-0 in pool play to enter the semifinals as the No. 1 seed with 13.5 points. The Wildcats beat Massillon Jackson 2-1 on March 8 and Liberty Township Lakota East 9-1 and Painesville Riverside 5-1 on March 9.
Fremont was seeded second (13.5 points) for the semifinals, followed by Medina (12.5) and Newark (10). The Generals went 2-1 in pool play, beating Butler County 4-0 on March 8 and losing to Medina 3-1 and beating Jackson 3-1 on March 9.
The other two GCHSCHL teams that competed in the state tournament were Westerville and Northeast. The Warcats went 2-1 (8) in pool play and finished sixth and the Storm went 1-2 (6) and finished eighth.