Late in the 2006-07 season, a group of freshmen began earning playing time for the Gahanna Lincoln High School hockey team. They provided hope for the future in a program that had stagnated at the time.

Late in the 2006-07 season, a group of freshmen began earning playing time for the Gahanna Lincoln High School hockey team. They provided hope for the future in a program that had stagnated at the time.

Three years later, the Lions expect those players, now seniors, to help elevate the team into contention for a Capital Hockey Conference title. Behind the scenes, though, a large freshman class of 15 players has been pushing for playing time and pushing the rest of the team. The veterans said they believe that internal competition might be just what the Lions need to become one of the top teams in the area.

"It's definitely made a lot of guys step their game up," junior Quentin Holmes said. "Everybody wants to be out there, everybody wants to have ice time."

In the first two years under coach Dante Scuderi, the Lions have made significant strides. But Scuderi hopes the team can take another step forward. After winning a program-record 22 games in 2007-08, the Lions weren't quite able to match that success last season, finishing 15-20 overall. Gahanna lost to Beavercreek 3-1 in the first round of the district tournament.

"Overall, I think the year was a success, but we come in wanting to do a little bit better than last year," Scuderi said. "Our senior class has been playing for a long time, they've been playing together. We have pretty good expectations for them."

In the CHC last season, Gahanna went 8-8 with 16 points to finish third in the Jackets Division, behind Dublin Coffman (15-0-1-0, 31 points) and Worthington Kilbourne (8-8-0-1, 17), and ahead of St. Charles (7-9-0-1, 15), DeSales (6-10, 12) and Olentangy Orange (2-14-0-1, 5). In the Blue Jackets Cup, Gahanna went 1-2 and finished sixth, losing to St. Charles 4-2 in the fifth-place game.

The CHC has added Cincinnati Moeller and Watterson, bringing the total to 14 teams. The two divisions have been combined into one, which means Gahanna will play each team once.

Scuderi said partly because he has an older roster this year, he expects the Lions to be one of the most physical teams in the league. Smallwood led the team in hits last season, and sophomore Dom Palombaro was second.

Smallwood and Palombaro lead the Lions' defense, along with junior Alex Barok. Smallwood is in his fourth varsity season and Barok is in his third. Sophomore Ross Perry also could see action.

At forward, seniors Nate Hays, John Mercurio and Brad Tarbutton are all fourth-year varsity players. All three have been among the team leaders in goals the past two seasons. Smallwood has been an offensive weapon the past two years and is expected to play some forward again this season.

Senior Kyle Wetherill is a third-year varsity player and also will contribute at forward. Holmes and sophomore Sean Moser showed scoring potential last season in their first year on varsity, and junior Andrew Winters is also a returning letterwinner at forward.

In goal, seniors Phillip Wellmer and Josh Nemec are expected to split time for a third consecutive season. However, Scuderi said freshmen David Despas and Nick Kasabinski are pushing for playing time as well.

Last season, after losing its top two offensive players from the previous season, Gahanna struggled at times to score. With more experience back throughout the lineup, the Lions expect that to improve, but players and coaches said it will be imperative to stay within the system and not try to do too much individually.

"Everyone has to buy into the system. Everyone's got to do what they're told," Smallwood said. "If everyone does that and they don't have their own agenda, I think it's going to work out."

At a glance

•Coach: Dante Scuderi, third season

•Opener: Friday at Midwest Thanksgiving Classic vs. Mentor Lake Catholic

•Key players: Nate Hays, John Mercurio, Connor Smallwood and Brad Tarbutton

Schedule

Nov. 27 vs. Mentor Lake Catholic at Midwest Thanksgiving Classic (Chiller North)

Nov. 28 vs. Corpus Christi (Texas) at Midwest Thanksgiving Classic (Chiller North)

Nov. 29 vs. Dublin Jerome at Midwest Thanksgiving Classic (Chiller North)

Dec. 4 at Centerville

Dec. 6 at Newark

Dec. 11-13 at Detroit Tournament

Dec. 18 vs. Dublin Coffman (Chiller Dublin)

*Dec. 19 vs. Watterson (Chiller Easton)

Dec. 23 at Oxford Talawanda

*Jan. 1 vs. DeSales (Chiller Easton)

*Jan. 3 vs. St. Charles (Chiller Easton)

*Jan. 8 vs. Cincinnati Moeller (Chiller Easton)

*Jan. 9 vs. Olentangy (Chiller North)

*Jan. 10 vs. Dublin Coffman (Chiller Easton)

Jan. 15-18 at Strongsville Ehrnfelt Memorial Tournament

*Jan. 22 vs. Thomas Worthington (Chiller Easton)

*Jan. 23 vs. Olentangy Liberty (Chiller North)

*Jan. 24 vs. Dublin Scioto (Chiller Easton)

*Jan. 29 vs. Upper Arlington (Chiller Easton)

*Jan. 31 vs. Olentangy Orange (Chiller North)

Feb. 4 vs. Beavercreek (Nationwide Arena)

*Feb. 6 vs. Dublin Jerome (Chiller Easton)

*Feb. 7 vs. Worthington Kilbourne (Chiller North)

Feb. 11-14 at Blue Jackets Cup (Dispatch Ice Haus)

*CHC game