As the Dublin Jerome High School hockey team reflected on becoming the first program from central Ohio to reach the state final during the postgame press conference March 8 at Nationwide Arena, senior defenseman Ryan Jenkins described a journey that was years in the making.

The journey included the pain of a 6-1 loss to Cleveland St. Ignatius in a state semifinal last year that dropped central Ohio's record in the state tournament to 0-12.

"All of these guys have played since they were young and have been dreaming about it, so we're just excited to get the opportunity," Jenkins said. "Personally, I think it was all about experience. Last year was kind of tough for the guys and the seniors to go out like that, but being able to come back this year more relaxed and not holding our sticks as tight and doing plays that we know how to do is good."

With 5 minutes, 13 seconds left in overtime against Hunting Valley University School, the moment central Ohio has been waiting for since the inception of the state tournament in 1978 finally occurred.

That's when senior left winger Nick Augenstein took a pass from senior right winger Ethan French near the center of the blue line, deked to get past University School defenseman Colin Counahan and slid the puck between the pads of Preppers goaltender Critter Coughlin to give the Celtics a 3-2 victory.

Junior defenseman Nolan Kunzelman also assisted on the winning goal.

The next day, Jerome lost to St. Ignatius 7-2 in the state final at Nationwide Arena to finish 35-3-0-1 overall. The Wildcats, whose regular-season schedule consisted mostly of travel and AAA teams, won their fourth consecutive state title.

Junior left winger Matt Kish and Augenstein each scored in a span of 14 seconds in the second period to cut the Celtics' deficit to 4-2, but St. Ignatius answered with three goals in the third period.

"We basically said, 'We've got one period left, so let's try to win it,'" coach Pat Murphy said.

Jerome took a 1-0 lead over University School on a goal by sophomore left winger Joel Kunzelman off a pass from senior center Trent Belli. The Celtics made it 2-0 on a goal by senior right winger Evan Shea off assists from Nolan Kunzelman and Kish.

The Preppers tied the game with a pair of second-period goals before the Celtics won it in overtime. Senior goalie Mark Bishopp had 23 saves.

"We rebounded really nicely with a couple good shifts after they tied the game," Murphy said. "We did a good job throughout the third period. In that situation, one great play wins the game and (Augenstein) pulled it off for us.

"(Reaching the state final has) never happened before. Our one goal was unfinished business. ... We feel great that we came out on top."

That the Celtics even were in that position was the biggest achievement for a program that beat Olentangy Liberty 3-1 on Feb. 10 to win the Blue Jackets Cup title and followed with four wins in the district tournament, including a 1-0 victory over the Patriots in the district final March 2 at OhioHealth Ice Haus on a goal by Shea.

Jerome is losing 10 seniors, led by Belli, Bishopp, Jenkins and right winger J.P Weaver.

Belli (25 goals, 50 assists), Jenkins (4 goals, 21 assists) and Weaver (39 goals, 28 assists) all were named first-team all-Capital Hockey Conference and all-CHC-Red Division, as the Celtics won the CHC-Red at 14-1.

Bishopp (24-3, .908 save percentage) was honorable mention all-CHC-Red.

Other key seniors were Augenstein (32 goals, 36 assists), center Dalton Miller (32 goals, 26 assists), French (11 goals, 19 assists), Shea (13 goals, 6 assists) and defenseman Vince Comfort (1 goal, 18 assists).

Nolan Kunzelman (4 goals, 24 assists) should be back to lead the defense.

Other expected key returnees include junior left winger Avery Mlicki (26 goals, 20 assists), junior center Adam Booth (13 goals, 9 assists), Joel Kunzelman (11 goals, 8 assists), Kish (7 goals, 11 assists) and junior goalie Ryan Norkin, who went 11-0-0-1 as the Bishopp's backup.

Sophomores Anthony DiPaolo (center), Hayden Hale (defenseman) and Evan Halligan (defenseman/forward) also were on the state tournament roster.

"I give these kids credit because we had an awesome season, the best season in school history by a mile," Murphy said. "We feel good about our performance. We lost three games this year. How can you be upset with that?

"We've got a couple young defensemen coming back (and) we've got a good core group for next year. We've got some young kids that can really play. We'll be back. We're not going away."

Most of wrestlers expected to return

Four of the wrestling team's six Division I district qualifiers are eligible to return.

Seven others who competed in the 10-team sectional Feb. 23 at Upper Arlington also should return next season for the Celtics, who went 4-3 in the OCC-Cardinal to tie Hilliard Bradley and Scioto for third behind Hilliard Darby (7-0) and Delaware (6-1).

"As a coaching staff, we've continued to tell the team as long as they believe in the process and put in the time, their efforts will be rewarded," coach Matt White said. "Last year, we were 2-4 in the OCC-Cardinal. This year, we had six (district) qualifiers and two (district) alternates and tied for third (in the league). We're still a young team and have a lot of room for improvement. We had two seniors who were both district qualifiers, so their presence will be missed."

The only seniors were Lane Williams (138 pounds), who finished 33-14, and John Huber (170), who went 24-18. Both were district qualifiers.

Juniors Jack Viola (106, 31-14) and Drew Kavinsky (182, 19-21) and sophomore Zach McMinn (220, 32-13) were the other district competitors. Sophomore Austin Wagner (113, 23-14) also qualified for district but did not compete.

Junior Joe Huber (195, 14-11) was a district alternate.

Also eligible to return after competing at sectional are juniors Alex Boukheir (145), Nick Henkel (160) and Mason Lee (132), sophomore Anthony Sarosi (152) and freshmen Salim Haqq (120) and Luke Milanovich (126).

"We're looking forward to having many of our wrestlers return," White said.

"There will always be a bit of turnover with kids leaving or new kids coming in. This past season, we had 12 juniors and a number of contributing underclassmen. We'll be looking for those guys to provide leadership to the younger group of kids coming up through the program and to set the bar for them. Many of these kids now have been through the process of the postseason and are beginning to understand what it takes to perform at a high level."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek