Nobody has a better understanding of what it takes to win the Blue Jackets Cup tournament more than Dublin Jerome High School hockey coach Pat Murphy.
The Celtics have won six Cup championships in the past eight seasons, including the past two.
Murphy, who has been behind the bench for each of those titles, believes his team has the qualities needed to win the eight-team tournament again this season, but he knows it won't be easy.
"This tournament is as competitive as it has ever been with five or six teams that are capable of winning it, depending on who plays well," Murphy said. "The tournament is really up for grabs this year, so it will come down to which team gets hot at the right time and does the best job of taking advantage of its opportunities."
The Cup tournament, which runs Thursday, Feb. 6, through Sunday, Feb. 9, and doubles as the Capital Hockey Conference tournament, is in its 13th season. Jerome won three consecutive titles from 2006-08 and another in 2010. The other past champions are Dublin Coffman (2004, 2005 and 2009), Olentangy Liberty (2011) and Thomas Worthington (2002 and 2003).
The championship bracket consists of the top four teams in the CHC-Red Division, the top three teams in the CHC-White and the CHC- Blue champion.
Jerome finished second (10-1-4-1, 25 points) in the CHC-Red behind Olentangy Orange (13-0-2-1, 29), with Liberty (9-2-5, 23) and Coffman (8-6-1, 17 points before Feb. 3) rounding out the top four. St. Charles (13-2, 26 points before Feb. 3) won the CHC-White title, with Upper Arlington (10-3-2-1, 23) and DeSales (8-8, 16) placing second and third, respectively. Watterson (7-9, 14) won the CHC-Blue.
Second-seeded Jerome, which beat Orange 2-0 in last year's Cup final, will open against seventh-seeded DeSales.
"We roll four forward lines and play six defensemen, and that's been a good recipe for success for us in this tournament because our guys have had more stamina and energy than some of the other teams as we've gotten deeper in the tournament," said Murphy, whose team was 6-0-1 in its past seven games. "We've gotten better and more consistent over the course of this season and we've really shored up our defense and goaltending recently.
"Our biggest challenge has been scoring goals. We've been getting plenty of chances, but we need to do a better job of putting them away in this tournament because every game is going to be competitive."
Orange, which won its first CHC-Red title this season, is seeking its first Cup title after reaching the final for the first time last year. The top-seeded Pioneers will open against eighth-seeded Watterson, which is making its first appearance in the championship bracket after being in the consolation bracket the past four seasons.
"We're the No. 1 seed, but we won a bunch of close games or we easily could have ended up being the No. 3 or 4 seed," Orange coach Tim Pennington said. "Now that we are the No. 1 seed, it just means we have to work that much harder because everyone is gunning for us.
"To win this, we have to be a little better than everyone else in all areas, especially when it comes to positional play, discipline and effort."
Liberty became the only team to win Blue Jackets Cup and district championships in the same season in 2011.
The Patriots lost to Orange 2-0 in a Cup semifinal last year, but bounced back to defeat Jerome 4-3 in overtime in the district final before losing to Sylvania Northview 4-2 in a state semifinal.
After losing eight of their first nine games this season, the Patriots earned wins or ties in 29 of their following 32 games leading up to this tournament.
Seeded third, Liberty will open against sixth-seeded Upper Arlington.
"We've improved quite a bit and if we continue playing this way, I think we can contend along with the other top teams," coach Jack Hoogeveen said. "We've had really good goaltending and our defensemen have provided a lot of offense for us. We've also been a little lucky in games where other teams have outplayed us and I hope all of that continues into this tournament."
Before facing Gahanna on Feb. 3 in a regular-season contest, St. Charles was 9-0-1 in its previous 10 games. The Cardinals were ranked seventh in last week's state poll, one spot ahead of Orange, and were ranked first in last week's district poll, with Orange, Jerome, Liberty, Coffman, UA, DeSales and Gahanna rounding out the top eight.
Seeded fifth, St. Charles will face fourth-seeded Coffman in the opening round.
"We need to continue to play smart and disciplined hockey," St. Charles coach Rob Sangster said. "We've been hot lately, but we need to keep our focus and stay out of the penalty box because there are five or six teams that are capable of winning this tournament. We're blessed with fantastic goaltending, but we need to take care of our own end first because defense is what wins championships."