Having returned several key players, the Hilliard club hockey team believes it has the potential to qualify for the state tournament for the 13th consecutive season.

Known as the Buckeye Cup, the Wildcats went 2-1 in pool play in the 12-team state tournament last season before losing to eventual champion Newark 7-1 in a semifinal to finish 25-22-4 overall.

"We're definitely looking to get back there this year," said junior forward James Schwinne III, who attends Central Crossing. "Hopefully, win it all sometime soon. We're hoping that we have a really strong season."

Hilliard was 6-5-1 overall and 2-1-1 in the Ohio Scholastic Hockey League before playing Newark on Nov. 22. The Wildcats played Dublin Jerome on Nov. 23 and will compete in the 21st annual Chiller Thanksgiving Classic, which runs Friday, Nov. 29, through Sunday, Dec. 1, at Chiller North.

Hilliard will play Olentangy Orange on the first day of the event and Strongsville and St. Charles on the second day. Its opponent on the third day will be determined after the first two days.

After opening league play with a 4-2 loss to Dayton on Nov. 2, the Wildcats defeated Northeast 5-2 on Nov. 8 and Athens 10-0 on Nov. 15 before tying PHA at 3 on Nov. 16.

Senior forward Marcus Cornett (St. Paris Graham) had a hat trick against Athens.

Last season, Hilliard went 14-8-2 (30 points) in the league to finish third behind Newark (41, 18-1-5) and Dayton (38, 17-3-4).

"Every year is a little different, but (qualifying for state is) the goal at the start (of the season)," ninth-year coach Wade Bartley said. "It's up to them how much they commit, how much they put into it, and that's exactly what they'll get out of it. We have a really solid group that works together."

Among the Wildcats' victories was an 8-1 win over Dublin Coffman on Nov. 10. Junior forward Will Kididis (Bradley) had a hat trick.

"It's been a really good start," Bartley said. "We have a good group of kids again. We have a more offensive-talented group than we've had in some years. We have some gifted goal-scorers (and) a good mix of young and some experienced defensemen."

Senior Camden Hanson (Bradley) has replaced 2019 graduate Jonathan Szekeres (Bradley) at goaltender.

Another key returnee is senior defenseman David Bentley (Central Crossing).

"We're all growing close together and we have a really strong bond as a team," Bentley said.

Also back are seniors Kaeden Boyd (forward, Ready), Nick Grossenbacher (forward, Bradley), Ryan Mayr (forward, Davidson) and John Pastirzyk (forward, Fairbanks), junior Jaxson Gillespie (forward, Darby) and sophomore Hayden Clingman (defenseman, Bradley).

Rounding out the roster are seniors Caleb Brashear (defenseman, Darby) and Eddie Stevens (defenseman, Grove City), juniors Sammy Delio (forward, Davidson), Owen Forchione (forward, Davidson), A.J. Lightfoot (forward, Darby) and Jesse Stevens (forward, Grove City), sophomores Caleb Fifolt (defenseman, Bradley) and Jarod Galindo (forward, Davidson) and freshmen Tim Elmer (defenseman, Davidson), Mason Sines (goalie, Fairbanks) and Andrew Wagenhauser (defenseman, Bradley).

"It's going to be a great year," Wagenhauser said. "We're growing close together and we're hoping to get the state championship."