Coach Dante Scuderi took over a Gahanna Lincoln High School hockey program last season that wasn't a perennial doormat but was not considered to be in the upper echelon in central Ohio.

Coach Dante Scuderi took over a Gahanna Lincoln High School hockey program last season that wasn't a perennial doormat but was not considered to be in the upper echelon in central Ohio.

The Lions, who had not had a winning season since the varsity team started in 2002, believe they have changed the perception of the program after going 22-11-2 overall last season.

Without question, the Lions have earned the respect they have now, but Scuderi wants his players to know that things won't get any easier after the breakthrough season last winter.

"I think this year, more teams kind of have their eye on us as someone they're not going to overlook anymore," Scuderi said.

The expectations are higher within the Gahanna camp as well, but players and coaches know they must replace the production from two their top two goal-scorers, graduates Jeff White and Kyle Tarbutton.

"Really, with losing those two powerhouse goal scorers, our guys know that not only are the expectations there, but we also have to compensate for the loss of those two leading seniors," Scuderi said.

The Lions open at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Chiller at Easton in the Midwest Thanksgiving Classic against Ironton St. Joseph Central. In the tournament, they also will play at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Chiller North against the Westerville club team and at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Chiller North against Kettering Alter. They will conclude in the placement round on Sunday at a time to be determined. Last year, the Lions doubled their win total after going 11-20-2 in 2006-2007. Gahanna also went 8-4-1-1 in the Jackets Division of the Capital Hockey Conference and finished third in the Blue Jackets Cup, beating St. Charles 2-1 in overtime of the third-place game.

In the district tournament, the Lions dropped the opening game for a fifth consecutive season, losing to St. Charles 2-1.

The Lions lost their two top players to graduation but do have an advantage after a year of experience with Scuderi. The biggest changes he made to the program were a heavier emphasis on conditioning and a heavier emphasis on moving the puck, and players said they feel more comfortable in his system at this point.

"Last year it took guys a while to start buying into the system," senior Steve Resch said. "There was a big learning curve just getting used to his terminology and stuff like that, the phrases he likes to use, the mindset he wants you to be in. There is a lot less of a learning curve this year, for sure."

Gahanna returns a large portion of last year's varsity, including six players who are in their third season and one in his fourth. Senior Drew Laurent is a three-year letterwinner and will see significant action at forward along with Resch, a two-year letterwinner.

Juniors Brad Tarbutton and John Mercurio also should see plenty of action at forward, and juniors Nate Hays and Connor Smallwood will be among the top defensemen. Scuderi referred to Smallwood as a "utility player" who will likely spend time at forward and on the penalty-kill and power-play teams. Like his brother Kyle last season, Brad Tarbutton will be counted on to provide much of the offensive production.

In the preseason, Tarbutton, Hays and Smallwood played on the Columbus Select team, which included three players from each high school team in the area and competed against the Select teams from other areas in Ohio.

Three freshmen also will begin the season on varsity and should be ready to contribute. Sean Moser and A.J. Gottron will play forward and Robbie Goebel will play defense. Scuderi said all three come in with extensive hockey experience.

At goalie, the Lions plan to rotate juniors Phillip Wellmer and Josh Nemec to open the season. Wellmer is in his third year, but Nemec and Wellmer split time on varsity last year.

Also on the roster are junior forward Kyle Wetherill, sophomore defenseman Alex Barok, senior forward Matthew Brody and senior forward Brad Stelmach.

Assistant coach Ted Lucky, who was in the program before Scuderi arrived, said the expectations within the program are as high as they have been since the program started.

"The players have higher expectations for themselves, which as a coach, that's great," Lucky said. "They know who's doing well individually on the team, it's that kind of thing. The players are setting expectations for themselves and that's fun."

At a glance

•Coach: Dante Scuderi, second season

•Opener: Friday at Chiller at Easton vs. Ironton St. Joseph Central

•Key players: Nate Hays, Drew Laurent, Steve Resch, Connor Smallwood and Brad Tarbutton