The Newark Generals club hockey team always starts its season at a disadvantage.
"Because of the number of football players we attract, we don't start the season until the second week of November," coach Don Jennings said. "Some of the other teams start in mid-October, so we're about three weeks behind them. I think Hilliard started even sooner and had played close to 20 games or exhibitions by the time we took the ice the first time."
Because of the later start, the Generals' schedule is back-loaded.
"We are always slammed in January and February, but at least we have games in hand and know what the target is in terms of the (Greater Columbus High School Club Hockey League) standings," Jennings said. "We have a good idea of what we have to do down the stretch as we position ourselves for the state tournament."
The Generals were third in the GCHSCHL at 8-2-3 (19 points), behind Hilliard (23 points, 11-3-1) and Westerville (22, 11-5) and ahead of Northeast (12, 5-7-2), PRPC (10, 5-10) and Athens (0, 0-13).
The top four teams in the league qualify for the Buckeye Cup state tournament, which will be held in March.
After defeating Athens 4-1 on Jan. 17, the Generals had seven league games remaining, including two against Athens and two against PRPC. They also have one game left against both of the teams they are chasing in the standings, Hilliard and Westerville.
Newark, which is 15-7-6 overall, plays host to PRPC on Thursday, Jan. 24, at Lou and Gib Reese Ice Arena.
The Generals remain in contention for the GCHSCHL championship. However, according to Jennings, their play will need to be more consistent if they are to reach that goal.
"We beat one of the top teams in the state, Hilliard, 3-0 (on Jan. 6) and then went out and lost the next league game to Westerville 9-1 (on Jan. 10)," Jennings said. "Even though this has been one of the most inconsistent teams I've had here, it was just one of those games where everything that could go wrong did. It was an anomaly."
"This team is different than past teams, " said forward Gabe Parini, a Granville senior who is in his fourth season with the Generals. "We've got a lot of veterans, but we're still younger than we've been since I've been here. We're finally starting to mesh and I'm confident we'll be fine by the state tournament."
Parini, one of the football players on the team, was leading the Generals in goals (17), assists (15) and points (32) through 27 games.
Their second-leading scorer, forward Alex O'Neill (11 goals, 12 assists), was injured during a 7-0 win over Northeast on Jan. 12 and could be sidelined for three weeks, Jennings said.
"We've had two injuries recently that will really hurt," Jennings said. "(Forward) Drew Stewart broke his right leg and likely is out for the rest of the season. One or two injuries like this can change a season, especially when you're as young as we are. We're also battling the flu like everyone else, so you just don't know what can happen."
Among the other key players are forward Chase Cherubini (13 goals, 4 assists) and defenseman Jake Hoffman (5 goals, 6 assists).
"We have a solid first line with Parini and Cherubini and a solid defense with Jake Hoffman, Nathan Fowler and Ben Baldwin," said Jennings, whose team competed in a Martin Luther King holiday tournament Jan. 18-20 in Pittsburgh. "Our goaltending is very good, but sometimes we need to have better checking in front of them (goalies Austin Pitcock and Charles Smart). But we'll get there. I think this is a very quality team."
Through 27 games, Pitcock was 11-5-2 with a 1.60 goals-against average and an .892 save percentage and Smart was 3-2-4 with a 2.40 GAA and an .842 save percentage.
The defending state champion, Newark has won three of the past four state titles, including in 2009 and 2010, and was the state runner-up in 2011. Parini envisions another long tournament run this season.
"We won it last year and finished seventh in the nation in Utah, so we have high goals again," he said. "In my sophomore year, we were seeded 12th in the state tournament and finished second when we lost to the Northeast Storm, so all we need to do is get there and get hot at the right time. But I think we're putting it together right now, which is even better."