The Westerville Warcats club hockey team struggled to win games early this season. In large part, it was because players couldn't keep their cool and stay out of the penalty box.

The Westerville Warcats club hockey team struggled to win games early this season. In large part, it was because players couldn't keep their cool and stay out of the penalty box.

With the season nearing the midway point, first-year coach Brandon Fackey said the Warcats now seem to be on track. The Warcats have cut back drastically on their penalty minutes, and though they are fighting for a bid to the Buckeye Cup state tournament, Fackey believes they are at least in a position to be competitive in every game.

"We've definitely been doing the things that we need to do to win games at this point," he said. "Now it's just a matter of playing a full 45 minutes. We've been playing two periods excellent, and then one period. Or maybe just a couple mistakes will cost us games. Before, we had no chance in games."

Westerville picked up a critical 1-0 win over Athens last Saturday and is only percentage points behind Newark for fourth in the GCHSCHL. The Warcats are 5-10-3 (13 points) in the league, behind Hilliard (9-2-7, 25), Athens (10-4-3, 23), PRPC (6-6-4, 16) and Newark (4-5-5, 13) and ahead of Northeast (3-10-3, 9). Not only has the league race been more competitive than in years past, but according to players and coaches, the talent level is higher across the board .

"There are only two travel teams left in Columbus to play for, so everyone just goes to play for their high school team," forward Garrett De Salle said. "I know a bunch of people out in Hilliard and on the other teams that I've played with throughout the years, and they're just going to play for their high school teams. The talent is just getting a lot better."

Since solving their penalty problems, the biggest focus for the Warcats has been defensive zone coverage. In particular, Fackey is looking to improve slot coverage when the puck is deep in the Warcats' zone or behind the net. Westerville is allowing an average of 3.4 goals per game, but in December, that average dropped slightly to 3.1.

Offensively, the Warcats know they are not going to be an explosive team, but they are looking to find some ways to improve their scoring. They have made some adjustments to their power play unit to take better advantage of those situations, and in general, they are looking to get as many shots on net as possible.

Westerville is averaging 2.6 goals per game, but just 2.0 goals per game in league contests. Leading the way offensively is John Brosnahan with seven goals and nine assists, followed by De Salle (six goals, seven assists), Evan Knight (eight goals, four assists) and Benn Walker (eight goals, four assists). Fackey said De Salle has been particularly impressive in recent weeks, not only with his scoring, but also with his backchecking.

Westerville should get a lift in the coming weeks as forwards Matt Taggart and David Veltum and defenseman Jake Simmerman are expected to return from injuries.

The Warcats' next game is on Jan. 3, when they play Northeast at Chiller North. Westerville has seven league games remaining, although some teams have as many as 11 left. The top four teams in the GCHSCHL earn a bid to the Buckeye Cup, although the fifth- or sixth-place team can take the fourth spot by winning the Blue Jackets Cup. Westerville last made the Buckeye Cup in 2007.

"(Our goal is) definitely to do whatever we can to make state," defenseman Eric Vermeire said. "That's our one and only goal right now."

At a glance

Below are the recent results and coming schedule for the Westerville club hockey team:

*Dec. 4 -- Defeated PRPC 2-1 *Dec. 6 -- Lost to PRPC 5-2 *Dec. 11 -- Lost to Athens 7-2 *Dec. 12 -- Lost to Hilliard 6-1 *Dec. 13 -- Tied Newark at 3 *Last Saturday -- Def. Athens 1-0 *Last Sunday -- Lost to Hilliard 6-1 *Jan. 3 -- At Chiller North vs. Northeast Storm

Of note: The Warcats are 6-10-4 overall and 5-10-3 in the GCHSCHL.