The Hilliard club hockey team hopes to carry the momentum it gained from winning its second Blue Jackets Cup championship into the state tournament this weekend.
The Wildcats will be making their 12th consecutive appearance in the 12-team state tournament, which is called the Buckeye Cup and runs from Friday, March 6, through Sunday, March 8, at OBM Arena in Strongsville.
Hilliard won the Ohio Scholastic Hockey League tournament, known as the Blue Jackets Cup, beating the Northeast Storm 7-2 in the final Feb. 23 to improve to 24-16-4. The Wildcats' other league tournament title came in the 2010-11 season.
"It's a big boost for the kids," coach Wade Bartley said. "It means the stuff we're working on and the stuff we try to pound into them works. When they see it and they're successful, you get a whole bunch of happy guys ready to practice and ready to get after it in a game. ... It's a big deal for our program."
The top 12 teams in the state according to myhockeyrankings.com advanced to the Buckeye Cup. The Wildcats are seeded fourth at state and will open pool play March 6 against the ninth-seeded Cleveland Wildcats. They also will play the 10th-seeded North Royalton Bears and the third-seeded Dayton Stealth in pool play March 7.
The semifinals and final will be played March 8.
"I've never been big on who we play," Bartley said. "You have to play the best at some point in your pool or out of your pool. We have a couple of tough ones. It's not big on who we play, it's how we play."
The Wildcats won three of four OSHL meetings with Dayton, including a 2-1 win on Feb. 22 in a semifinal of the Blue Jackets Cup. Hilliard also defeated Dayton 4-2 on Dec. 21 and 5-4 on Jan. 4, but lost to the Stealth 4-2 on Nov. 2.
"We're going to come out with the same mentality that we did in the CBJ Cup," forward Will Kididis said. "We're just going to bring it to other teams and make sure that we come out hard and try to get to the final."
Also qualifying for the Buckeye Cup from the OSHL were Newark (second seed), Westerville (seventh) and Northeast (11th).
"The boys are playing pretty hard and playing together is probably the biggest thing," Bartley said. "It's all about using the players we have. There's 20 guys on the team for a reason. You have to use the players you have on the ice, offensively and defensively, and when you start doing that, it's easier to play the game and be successful."
Seeded second in the Blue Jackets Cup, Hilliard defeated seventh-seeded Athens 8-0 in the first round Feb. 21 before beating third-seeded Dayton and fourth-seeded Northeast.
Forward James Schwinne III had three goals in the championship game against the Storm, while Kididis, defenseman Caleb Fifolt and forwards Owen Forchione and Jaxson Gillespie each added one goal.
"It was really good," Fifolt said of winning the Blue Jackets Cup title. "We came through every game. (First) against Athens, and then we pulled through against Dayton to make it to the final, and then we beat Northeast pretty good, so it was probably our best weekend of hockey so far this year."
Goaltender Mason Sines had 21 saves against Northeast. He emerged in the latter stages of the season as the Wildcats' starter.
"We're planning on seeing how he's going to start off the state tournament and see where we go from there," Bartley said.
Other key offensive contributors have been forwards Kaeden Boyd, Marcus Cornett, Sammy Delio and John Pastirzyk and defenseman Jesse Stevens.
Last season, the Wildcats advanced to a state semifinal before losing to eventual champion Newark 7-1 to finish 25-22-4.