After a slow start to the season, the Hilliard club hockey team had a resurgent second half, capped by playing in the state tournament for the 12th consecutive season.
The Wildcats advanced to a semifinal in the 12-team tournament, known as the Buckeye Cup and held at Cincinnati Sports Plus, before losing to eventual champion Newark 7-1 on March 10 to finish 25-22-4 overall.
Hilliard began the season 3-10.
"There's a whole bunch of teams that weren't playing (March 10), which is a lot to be said for our resilience and battling and finding a way to get into the (semifinals)," coach Wade Bartley said.
Hilliard was seeded sixth in the Buckeye Cup and went 2-1 in pool play, defeating seventh-seeded Westerville 2-0 on March 8 before beating 12th-seeded Indian Hill 8-1 and losing to top-seeded Medina 3-0 on March 9.
The Wildcats won a tiebreaker with 11th-seeded PHA for the final semifinal berth by having allowed fewer goals in pool play. Second-seeded Newark went on to win the state championship, beating Medina 4-3 in the final.
Forward Matthew Spangler (Darby), who was one of 10 seniors, and junior forward Nick Grossenbacher (Bradley) each scored against Westerville, while Grossenbacher and junior forward Kaeden Boyd (Ready) each scored two goals against Indian Hill.
Grossenbacher scored against Newark, which went 2-1-1 against Hilliard in Ohio Scholastic Hockey League action. The Wildcats finished third in the OSHL at 14-8-2 (30 points), behind the Generals (41, 18-1-5) and Dayton (38, 17-3-4).
"You have to give Newark a lot of credit," Bartley said. "They came out really hard and were ready to go. We didn't match their intensity early. It was a good battle to the end. I'm very proud of our kids for the way they competed and kept their composure and made a proud statement for Hilliard hockey."
Last season, Hilliard went 1-2 in pool play at state and failed to qualify for the semifinals.
Bartley credited the senior class for the Wildcats' success this season.
"It's tough to say goodbye to the seniors," Bartley said. "It's tough for kids to move on, to play in other places when they're done in high school. They know their time at the rink is done at the high-school level."
Bartley was impressed with the play of senior Jonathon Szekeres (Bradley), who handled most of the goaltending duties this season. Junior Camden Hanson (Bradley) also saw time in net and should contend for the starting job next season.
"Jonathon was outstanding this year," Bartley said. "I was a little nervous about our goaltending early in the year and both of them proved that they were varsity goalies. Jon's experience really brought him to the forefront."
Others eligible to return are juniors David Bentley (defenseman, Central Crossing), Marcus Cornett (forward, St. Paris Graham), Ryan Mayr (forward, Davidson) and John Pastirzyk (forward, Fairbanks), sophomores Cameron DeForest (forward, Bradley), Jaxson Gillespie (forward, Darby) and Ryan Koenig (defenseman, Davidson) and freshman Hayden Clingman (defenseman, Bradley).
"We have a good corps of guys coming back and we have a good group of j.v. kids that are ready to make the jump," Bartley said. "We're looking forward to good, hard offseason workouts and hopefully they'll keep this last game in their minds and how close they are and anything can happen. It will be exciting."