Since the Buckeye Cup state championship began in 2005, the PRPC club hockey team has spent most of each regular season getting prepared for its postseason run.

Since the Buckeye Cup state championship began in 2005, the PRPC club hockey team has spent most of each regular season getting prepared for its postseason run.

This winter, the Prowlers find themselves in the midst of a tight race just to ensure that they earn a spot in the Buckeye Cup. Heading into the holiday break, the Prowlers are in third place in the Greater Columbus High School Club Hockey League, with four teams earning a bid to the Buckeye Cup.

Only the top three regular-season finishers are guaranteed a spot, since the fifth- or sixth-place team can take the fourth spot by winning the Blue Jackets Cup.

"Since I've been playing, the (standings) have gotten closer and closer every year," forward Kyle Baughman said. "Definitely this year, the teams are as close as they've been. I think we should definitely be able to get in the playoffs, though."

Still, the Prowlers don't necessarily look at the competitive race as a bad thing. Coaches and players said the skill level across the board is higher than in any previous season.

"I think you're seeing more midget-age players going to play for their high school, and I think what it's doing is spreading out the talent throughout the league," coach Joe Tonello said. "It helps make every team more competitive."

Hilliard, which was third in the league last season, is currently occupying the top spot at 8-2-7 with 23 points. Athens, the sixth-place team from a year ago, is tied for first at 10-4-3 with 23 points.

PRPC is third at 6-6-4 with 16 points, followed by Newark (4-5-5, 13), Westerville (5-10-3, 13) and Northeast (3-9-3, 9).

With the departure of graduate Adam McGrath, the Prowlers have had to adjust their offensive style to generate goals. PRPC came into the season with a few established scorers, including Baughman and Jake Miller, but Tonello said his team has had to be more disciplined and rely on puck movement.

"We've been making smart decisions, letting the puck do the work versus individuals doing the work, so we're seeing some more success," Tonello said. "We're being more disciplined and focusing on the task at hand."

Tonello also said the scoring has been spread out not only among several players, but among several lines.

Baughman (five goals, 14 assists in league play) and Miller (six goals, eight assists) have led their respective lines, but Tyler Berry (eight goals, two assists), Nathan Billups (eight goals, five assists), Kyle Hyer (seven goals, four assists) and Geremy Martin (two goals, eight assists) have been impact players on offense as well. Nine others have at least six points.

Defensively, Sean Straker has led the way. Tonello said Straker has done a "phenomenal job," both in the defensive zone and as an offensive weapon. Straker has three goals and three assists.

"He's a junior, but I said this last year, he plays like a senior," Tonello said.

In goal, Erik Heinmiller has started most of the recent games because of an injury to Jeremiah Holland. Heinmiller has allowed 2.48 goals per game with an 89.3 save percentage. Holland, who had been allowing 2.18 goals per game, is expected to return in early January. Drake Holdren has been moved up from the junior varsity with Holland out.

The Prowlers, who have nine conference games remaining, return to action Jan. 3 at Easton vs. Newark. Coaches and players said the key to securing a playoff spot is bringing consistent effort for all 45 minutes each game.

"I think we all need to come out flying and play the whole game," Baughman said. "A couple games we've either been winning in the first and second and then lost it in the third, or not played in the first period and had to catch back up. We've just got to play all three periods."