The Hilliard club hockey team is preparing for what has become an annual tradition.
The Wildcats earned their 11th consecutive berth in the state tournament, known as the Buckeye Cup, and will open the tournament against 11th-seeded Fremont in pool play Friday, March 2, at Chiller Easton.
Hilliard, which is 27-16-4, is seeded second of 12 teams, behind Newark.
"The state tournament is something on everybody's minds. I know that," coach Wade Bartley said. "Newark is the team we'll likely face at state and possibly in the final if it works out like that."
The Wildcats will face both ninth-seeded Camp Dennison Indian Hill and fifth-seeded Medina in pool play Saturday, March 3, at Chiller North. The semifinals and final will be played Sunday, March 4, at Chiller North.
Bartley was pleased with the state draw, but also surprised.
"It was surprising with the way we were up and down, but our tough schedule made us prepared for this time of the year," he said.
Hilliard went 0-3 in pool play at state last season after finishing third at state the previous two seasons.
"It makes me really proud to be in a program like this," said senior defenseman Mitchell Gillespie, who will be playing in the state tournament for the fourth time. "We want to go far at state, just like the CBJ Cup. We want to win the state tournament and go to nationals."
The state champion qualifies for the national tournament March 22-26 in Plymouth, Minnesota.
Hilliard fell short in its bid for its first Blue Jackets Cup championship since 2011, as it reached the championship round before dropping a pair of games to Newark on Feb. 24 in the double-elimination league tournament.
In the first game against the Generals, Colin Mayr scored a short-handed goal and goaltender Jesse Walz had 23 saves in a 3-1 loss at OhioHealth Ice Haus. Trevor Seitz and Gillespie scored and Walz made 17 saves in a 5-2 loss later that day at Chiller North.
"We allowed two soft goals and could not recover," Bartley said of the second loss. "The guys played hard, though."
Newark opened the Blue Jackets Cup tournament with a 4-3 loss to the Northeast Storm on Feb. 16, but won five consecutive games to earn its third Cup title in four years.
Hilliard won its first three games in the league tournament, defeating the Westerville Warcats 5-0 on Feb. 15, the Dayton Stealth 2-0 on Feb. 16 and Northeast 2-1 on Feb. 17.
The Wildcats finished 12-8-4 (28 points) in the Ohio Scholastic Hockey League during the regular season to tie Northeast for third, behind Newark (43, 20-1-3) and Dayton (30, 13-7-4) and ahead of PHA (27, 12-9-3), Westerville (9, 3-18-3) and Athens (3, 0-21-3).
"There's a lot of success for the program and I'm very proud of the kids and the effort that they've had," Bartley said. "It's been fantastic."