Hilliard club hockey coach Wade Bartley recognizes there is a lot of work to be done if his team is to take the next step and win the Buckeye Cup this season.

Hilliard club hockey coach Wade Bartley recognizes there is a lot of work to be done if his team is to take the next step and win the Buckeye Cup this season.

The Wildcats were one period away from winning their first state championship last season before losing to Medina 3-1 in the Buckeye Cup final at Cincinnati Gardens. They led 1-0 after two periods but fell behind 2-1 in the third before Medina sealed the outcome late with an empty-net goal.

The previous season, the Wildcats reached a state semifinal, where they lost to Jackson 3-2 (4-3 in a shootout). Jackson is a member of the Cleveland-based North Coast High School Hockey League.

"This is a different season and we're much younger, especially on defense, but there are always high expectations," said Bartley, whose team finished 30-18-6 overall last season. "We lost a huge group of kids and leaders and we're still trying to figure out lines.

"Fortunately, we're in a great program and we're going to continue teaching and developing and I see us competing for a league title and see some great things coming. We're going to have ups and downs. We need to get the kids to believe in themselves."

Hilliard is the defending champion of the six-team Greater Columbus High School Club Hockey League. Last season, the Wildcats went 15-3-2 (32 points) in league play to finish ahead of Newark (32, 14-2-4), Westerville (25, 12-7-1), Northeast (17, 7-10-3), PRPC (14, 7-13) and Athens (0, 0-20). PRPC is now known as PHA.

Hilliard won the tiebreaker for the GCHSCHL regular-season title by having one more win than Newark, but the Generals won the league tournament, the Blue Jackets Cup, defeating the Wildcats 2-0 in the final.

The Wildcats exacted a measure of revenge by beating the Generals 4-3 in a state semifinal before falling to Medina.

Among the key returnees are senior defensemen Greg Brown (Darby) and Alec Lascola (Bradley) and senior forwards Kyle Antal (Davidson), Patrick Feldkamp (Ready) and Tyler Hernandez (Bradley).

"Brown and Lascola are the two guys on defense who come back with experience," said Bartley, whose team was 1-3-3 overall and 1-1-3 in the GCHSCHL before playing Northeast on Nov. 24. "We've got a lot of fast kids up front, led by Antal, Hernandez and Feldkamp, but we're still trying to figure out other roles."

Davidson sophomore Simo Huhtanen is the starting goaltender. He shared time in goal with Mack Burton last season, but Burton did not return for his senior season.

"We're off to a sluggish start," Huhtanen said. "But by the end of the season, I think we'll be in contention for a state title. We have a good mix of talent and we'll get better as the season goes on. We're young, but we expect a lot."

Zack Arrington, a senior who is home-schooled, is the backup to Huhtanen.

Six other forwards returned in senior Scott Starbuck (Bradley), juniors Daniel Brashear (Darby), Jordan Coppess (Darby) and Jacob Slater (Davidson) and sophomore Gage Akers (Darby). Other forwards are seniors Tate Bowen (Dublin Scioto) and Devin Burnside (Urbana) and junior Jared Vaught (Darby).

Also back is Davidson sophomore Matthew Riley, who can play forward or defense.

Bartley said he expects sophomore defensemen Robert Humphreys (Bradley) and Sam Wenerstrom (home-schooled) and freshman defenseman Mason Moldovan (Darby) to be key contributors.