The Hilliard club hockey team might be playing its best hockey of the season, and the timing couldn't be better.
The Wildcats began the season 3-10, but have won eight of their last nine games, including their last five. They closed the regular season Feb. 10 with a 4-2 win over Dayton and are seeded third for the double-elimination league tournament, known as the Blue Jackets Cup.
Hilliard is 20-18-4 overall and finished 14-8-2 (30 points) in the Ohio Scholastic Hockey League, behind Newark (41, 18-1-5) and Dayton (38, 17-3-4) and ahead of Westerville (20, 10-14), PHA (20, 8-12-4), Northeast (18, 8-14-2) and Athens (1, 0-23-1).
"I like our team," coach Wade Bartley said. "We work extremely hard. We're starting to develop some late-season leadership, guys understanding that they have to leave something behind when they leave the program, which brings the juniors and sophomores to a higher standard and higher work ethic."
Hilliard will face sixth-seeded Northeast in the first round of the Blue Jackets Cup on Friday, Feb. 15, at Chiller Dublin. The winner plays second-seeded Dayton or seventh-seeded Athens on Saturday, Feb. 16 at Chiller Dublin.
The tournament continues Sunday, Feb. 17, at Chiller Dublin or Chiller North and resumes Feb. 22 at OhioHealth Ice Haus. The championship round begins Feb. 23 and concludes Feb. 24 if needed, with both games being played at Chiller North.
"It's a big test for us to at least get to the final and show where we are as a team," Bartley said.
The Wildcats are seeking their first Blue Jackets Cup championship since 2011. Last season, they reached the championship round before losing 3-1 and 5-2 to Newark.
Hilliard also is aiming for its 12th consecutive berth in the double-elimination state tournament, known as the Buckeye Cup, which begins March 8. Last season, the Wildcats went 1-2 in pool play and failed to make the semifinals to finish 28-18-4.
The Buckeye Cup features the top teams from the OSHL, North Coast High School Hockey League and the Cincinnati High School Hockey League.
Hilliard defeated Westerville 5-1 on Feb. 8 at Chiller Easton behind goals from Peter Burback, Marcus Cornett, Nick Grossenbacher, Ryan Koenig and Ryan Mayr and 19 saves by goaltender Camden Hanson.
Scoring against Dayton were Koenig, Cameron DeForest, Joseph Dubosh and Kyle Heidtman.
"We definitely started (the season) slow, but I like how we've progressed and come together as a team," Mayr said. "We're really getting into the swing of things and we're improving and playing really well."