After a slow start to the season, the Hilliard Wildcats club hockey team appears to be hitting its stride.
The Wildcats began the season 3-10, but are 5-2-2 in their last nine games heading into an Ohio Scholastic Hockey League contest against Northeast on Friday, Jan. 11, at Chiller North. Hilliard is 8-12-2 overall.
"It's different this year," coach Wade Bartley said. "We're coming from the back of the pack (in the OSHL) and climbing our way up. We're finding our identity as a team. I'm happy with the progress we've made the past month.
"We're peaking at a really good time. It's a good feeling knowing how we react to taking some losses and how we keep battling back. I'm interested to see how they're going to reach when it comes down to playoff time."
The Wildcats also have a league game against Westerville on Saturday, Jan. 12, at Chiller North. They defeated the Warcats 8-4 on Nov. 9.
Brian Thompson, who was with the Westerville club for five seasons, including the past three as head coach, now is an assistant with Hilliard.
The Wildcats are third in the OSHL at 7-7-2 (16 points), behind Dayton (33, 15-0-3) and Newark (23, 9-1-5). Westerville (14, 7-8) and Northeast (14, 6-8-2) are tied for fourth, followed by PHA (13, 5-9-3) and Athens (1, 0-16-1).
"We want to keep chipping away and see if we can leave some teams with a little bad taste after they play us and not want to play us in the playoffs," Bartley said.
The state tournament, known as the Buckeye Cup, will be held March 8-10 in Cincinnati.
Hilliard and Newark played to a 3-all tie Jan. 3 at Lou & Gib Reese Ice Arena in Newark. John Pastirzyk, Ryan Mayr and Marcus Cornett each scored for the Wildcats and goaltender Jonathan Szekeres had 32 saves.
"It was a good, hard fought game, back and forth," Bartley said.
Pastirzyk, Mayr, Kaeden Boyd, Kyle Heidtman and Isaac Lee each scored and Szekeres had six saves in a 5-1 win against PHA on Jan. 4 at Chiller Dublin.
Szekeres has emerged as the regular starting goalie, according to Bartley.
"Szekeres has been carrying most of the games lately," Bartley said. "He's playing phenomenal. Cam Hanson is a solid backup. ... Scoring has been really balanced."