After making its third appearance in the state tournament in 2017, the Olentangy Liberty hockey team settled for district runner-up finishes each of the past two seasons.
The Patriots, who lost for the third consecutive year in the Blue Jackets Cup final before having last season end with a 1-0 loss to eventual state runner-up Dublin Jerome in the district final, haven't struggled to find their purpose as this season gets underway.
"We're an older team this year and we have a chip on our shoulder from Jerome," senior forward Aidan King said. "We've got to beat them, so we're using that as motivation to get better every day."
On Friday, Nov. 29, through Sunday, Dec. 1, Liberty competes in the Sylvania Northview Thanksgiving Tournament at Tam-O-Shanter. It opened Nov. 22 against Berlin.
The Patriots went 23-11-2-2 overall last winter and were runners-up (24 points, 11-2-1-1) in the CHC-Red Division behind Jerome (28, 14-1).
King is part of a senior class that also features defensemen Tim Casey, Keegan Pullins and Max Turner, forward Korey Raymond and goaltender Andrew Vidrick.
Vidrick was first-team all-league last year along with 2019 graduate Craig Lutwen, who scored 16 goals, while 2019 graduate and defenseman Grant Bertges was honorable mention all-league.
Raymond, who scored two goals in Liberty's 3-2 victory over Upper Arlington in a district semifinal, and King both expect the team's offense to be improved this winter.
"Our problem is the same as last year: We've got to score goals," third-year coach Kevin Alexander said. "We're really solid on defense and really solid in net."
Other key returnees include juniors Ben Brown (forward), Nik Jozefiak (forward/defenseman) and Isaac Moe (forward) and sophomores Shane Flanagan (forward) and Gage Schlotterbeck (forward).
Another sophomore who was expected to be a returnee, Pierceton VanGurp, moved out of the area.
Also looking to contribute are seniors Jake DiMantova (forward) and Dane Hatfield (forward), juniors Eli Bowden (defenseman), Dylan Flesher (forward), Cameron Gresham (defenseman), Ian Hood (forward), Andy Keeler (goaltender), Max Lundquist (forward), Andrew Minardi (defenseman), Nolan Pittroff (defenseman), Kellan Reynolds (forward) and Landon Smith (forward) and sophomore Sully Plancon (defenseman).
Further adding to the excitement surrounding the program is that it has a new locker room at Chiller North.
"We talked after losing in district finals the last two years that we've been three or four plays short," Alexander said. "We actually have a senior leadership council talking about how we're going to be a smarter team.
"We've had great support for the team, very good booster parents and have got a state-of-the-art locker room, so now it's time for the kids to appreciate what they have."
Girls basketball team also expects success
Having four of its top five scorers eligible to return gave the girls basketball team a reason for optimism heading into the offseason after it had a second consecutive Division I district runner-up finish last winter.
With the addition of a senior transfer and a pair of talented freshmen, those hopes have grown.
Liberty, which went 18-8 overall last season, opened Nov. 26 at Hilliard Bradley and begins OCC-Buckeye play Tuesday, Dec. 3, at Olentangy.
"We return about 75 percent of our scoring from last year," sixth-year coach Sam Krafty said. "A big question mark for us is when Teegan (Pifher) gets back. She's close and we do expect her back at some point, but we just don't know when. Obviously that's a big piece to the puzzle for us, but we've got a lot of pieces. I like this team a lot."
Pifher, a 6-foot-1 senior who has committed to High Point, averaged 12.5 points and seven rebounds last season and was named first-team all-league and third-team all-district.
Senior wing player Kelly Levering (5-10) averaged 8.5 points and was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Sophomore point guard Trinity Ramos (5-4) averaged six points and was named special mention all-league.
Senior guard Gina Santangelo (5-5) averaged four points.
Juniors Sarah Balliett (5-3, guard), Charlotte Hummell (5-8, guard) and Caitlin Splain (5-7, guard) and sophomore Jordan Rich (6-0, post player) are others who gained experience last season.
New to the team is senior Maddie Majewski, a 5-10 forward who averaged 16 points last year for Village Academy as that program went 13-6 in its final season before the school closed. Majewski was second-team all-district in Division IV.
Freshman Addison Marston, a 6-2 post player, and freshman Meredith Mrukowski, a 6-1 wing player, also should see playing time.
Also looking to contribute is junior Sadie Lucas, a 5-9 wing player.
Liberty finished second (8-2) in the OCC-Buckeye last season behind Westerville South, which has its third coach in as many seasons but went 10-0 in the league a year ago and was a regional semifinalist.
"(Playing a tough schedule) has helped us," Krafty said. "We have some solid tournament wins the last couple years, getting to the district final and we've proven to be a little battle-tested. I'd rather play in a close game than win a game by 40 points."
Below are the coming schedules for the Liberty boys basketball, girls basketball and hockey teams:
Nov. 30 -- Springfield in All-Ohio Nike Hoops Showcase at Pickerington North
Dec. 1 -- Akron Buchtel at Walsh University
*Dec. 3 -- At Olentangy
Nov. 29 -- Toledo St. Francis in Sylvania Northview Thanksgiving Tournament at Tam-O-Shanter
Nov. 30 -- Toledo St. John's and Bowling Green in Northview Thanksgiving Tournament at Tam-O-Shanter
Dec. 1 -- TBD in Northview Thanksgiving Tournament at Tam-O-Shanter