At the outset of the season, the Olentangy Liberty High School hockey team knew that generating offense would be a challenge after the departure of nearly all of last season's top scorers.

At the outset of the season, the Olentangy Liberty High School hockey team knew that generating offense would be a challenge after the departure of nearly all of last season's top scorers.

What the Patriots weren't counting on was the fact that two of their top defensemen would go down with injuries early in the season, leaving them inexperienced on defense as well. Junior Robert Koehler injured his knee early in the regular season and freshman Noah Allmaras has been out since the preseason with a hand injury. In addition, senior forward Nick Zanetos, the team's captain, was injured in a 7-1 loss to Gates Mills Gilmour Academy on Dec. 11.

As a result, the first month of the season has not been easy for Liberty, but coach Jack Hoogeveen is hoping a 4-2 win over Centerville on Dec. 12 represents the turning point for the Patriots.

"We're really looking forward to getting those guys back," Hoogeveen said of the injured players. "That will really improve our skill level. But you've got to give the guys a lot of credit for battling back, after losing two (games that weekend), to beat Centerville, who we tied in the preseason. It was something we really needed."

The win over Centerville snapped a four-game losing streak for Liberty. The Patriots rode that momentum to three more wins last weekend to improve to 5-7 overall and 3-0 in the Capital Hockey Conference.

Hoogeveen expects all three injured players to return to action either this weekend at a tournament at Bowling Green or when the Patriots resume conference play on Jan. 2 at the Dispatch Ice Haus against Upper Arlington. With Allmaras and Koehler out on defense, younger players such as sophomore Peter Leonetti and freshman Gus Olmstead have been given an opportunity to gain some experience.

Hoogeveen has been impressed by the play of senior forward Ben Saylor, who recently was named an assistant captain. Saylor has been on varsity the past two seasons, but was not named a captain or assistant captain at the start of the season. Hoogeveen said he took a leadership role not through boisterous speeches to teammates, but rather through steady play in practices and games.

"He's starting to play up to his potential, which we always knew he had," Hoogeveen said. "This year he's gotten a chance to prove it, and he's doing that. Kudos to him. He wanted to know what he had to do to be a leader, and we told him, 'Show them with your play.'"

Saylor said he had set his mind on becoming a captain when the varsity program started in 2007. He didn't give up on that goal even after he was not initially chosen this season.

"After (Zanetos and assistant captain Logan Singleton) were named captains, I just realized that this is my senior year and this is my chance to show what I really have," Saylor said. "For the past couple of weeks, I've just been driving to get our team to that next spot, just to get our team up with (Dublin) Coffman and all the other good teams around the league."

Orange appears to have improved in its second year.

The Pioneers, who finished 8-18-1 last season, made a statement right away this season, winning all four games at the Midwest Thanksgiving Classic Nov. 27-29. Two of those wins came against CHC opponents, as they beat DeSales 9-1 on Nov. 27 and Worthington Kilbourne 2-1 on Nov. 28). However, those games did not count toward the league standings.

"We're obviously a lot deeper now," coach Tim Pennington said. "You can definitely see where one year makes a difference. Some of those kids who were freshmen last year, and also the ones who were sophomores, there's been a huge difference. We're pretty happy with that."

Despite having two weeks between games, Orange did not lose momentum, winning two of three games last weekend to improve to 6-1 overall and 2-1 in the CHC. Cincinnati Moeller handed the Pioneers their first loss last Sunday, winning 4-1 in Cincinnati.

The line of Dar Faroughi, Jake Shepherd and Robbie Lindeman, each of whom played on separate lines last season, particularly has impressed Pennington. Those three "just clicked from the start," Pennington said.

In the Midwest Thanksgiving Classic, Faroughi scored five goals, Lindeman had four goals and seven assists and Shepherd had six assists. Several other players stepped up offensively last weekend, including Kevin Peters, Taylor Hardy and Kevin Peddicord, each of whom scored two goals.

Defensively, Orange has been solid all season, as goalies Evan Maldonado and Alex Victor have combined to allow an average of just 1.9 goals per game.

The Pioneers are off until Jan. 2, when they resume CHC play with a game against Watterson at Chiller North. Orange was just 2-14-1 in the league last season, but Pennington said the early improvement has his team believing it can make a drastic jump in the standings.

"We've set a goal for our kids to shoot for being the best in our conference," Pennington said. "There's no reason not to. A lot of the other games I've seen in the paper have been pretty close games. Last year in the (district tournament), we played Moeller and lost to them 4-1, and hopefully we're better this year and we can kind of close the gap."