Having missed a berth in the Buckeye Cup state tournament the past two seasons, the Prowlers Hockey Association club team underwent a major overhaul in the offseason.
Among the changes was its name. It went from being known as PRPC, which was an acronym for Pickerington, Reynoldsburg, Pataskala and Canal Winchester, to PHA and dropped "Ice" from its original nickname, Ice Prowlers.
The Prowlers also underwent their third coaching change in as many years. Mark Mead, who directed Hilliard to the Blue Jackets Cup title in 2010-11, has replaced Brenton Blaskie behind the bench. Blaskie led the program for just one season, guiding the Prowlers to an 18-23 overall record last season. Blaskie's predecessor, T.J. Hess, also coached the team for only one season, leading the Prowlers to a 15-24-3 mark in 2011-12.
"There isn't a coach in the program that was here last season," Mead said. "We changed just about everything from the off-ice and on-ice systems. In general, on the ice we want to use puck possession and movement and tighten things up defensively.
"There is talent in the program. They just need to learn to work and play together. There was too much individual play last year. We will succeed when their mindset is to work as a unit to accomplish things."
PHA finished 7-13 (14 points) in the six-team Greater Columbus High School Club Hockey League last year to place fifth, behind Hilliard (32, 15-3-2), Newark (32, 14-2-4, 32), Westerville (25, 12-7-1) and Northeast (17, 7-10-3) and ahead of Athens (0, 0-20).
Hilliard won the tiebreaker for GCHSCHL regular-season title by having one more win than Newark, but the Generals won the league tournament, known as the Blue Jackets Cup, by beating Hilliard 2-0 in the final.
The winner of the double-elimination Blue Jackets Cup tournament and the next three teams in the regular-season GCHSCHL standings qualified for the Buckeye Cup, and PHA lost to Hilliard 5-2 in the losers' bracket final to fall one win shy of advancing to state.
Willie Dunham, a junior at Reynoldsburg High School, returned as goaltender. He had a .903 save percentage last season while sharing time in goal with Pickerington North junior Adam Collins.
"He has been tremendous and is the backbone of this team," Mead said of Dunham. "He's always focused and composed and is a hard worker. He stands in there well and really sees the puck well. He also is an athletic goalie with a good recovery rate."
Among the key returnees on defense are seniors William VanHoose (Watkins Memorial) and Brandon Pfeiffer (Canal Winchester). VanHoose is team captain and Pfeiffer had 11 goals and 11 assists for 22 points in 41 games last season.
Juniors Chris Bowers (Pickerington Central) and Michael Gardner (Liberty Union) are other key defensemen.
"I think we'll be good on defense and we want to remain a physical team, but we've got to stay out of the penalty box," said Mead, whose team was 2-5-1 overall and 1-2-1 in the GCHSCHL before playing Northeast on Nov. 22. "There's more emphasis on reducing injuries, especially head injuries, so there have been rule changes. We're trying to adjust to become more skilled at checking."
Returning at forward are Pickerington North seniors Brett Chaffin and Alex Yarish and juniors Owen Mayhew (Reynoldsburg), Hunter Morgan (Pickerington North) and Brandon Leveque (Watkins Memorial).
Last season, Mayhew led the team in goals (34) and points (51) and had 17 assists. Chaffin had 14 goals and seven assists and Yarish had five goals and 11 assists.
Mayhew and Morgan are the team's alternate captains.
Mead has been impressed by the early-season play of junior Greg Bowers and freshmen Nick Hyland and Dalton McElwain at forward. All three attend Pickerington Central.
"Mayhew is one of the top forwards in the league, and he and Morgan give us a great top line," Mead said. "Leveque has been solid on the third line and Yarish is going to have a good season after working hard all fall. The two freshmen are on the top three lines and have played well, as has Greg Bowers."
Rounding out the roster at forward are juniors Trace Kelly and Ethan Kohner of Pickerington Central, junior Richard Sklenar of Pickerington North and sophomore Matt Rapp of Canal Winchester.
"We're young, with only four seniors, but I think once we settle in, we're going to be just fine," Mead said. "The key is working together."