With school closed and his hockey season in limbo because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Brandon Barash tried to make life as normal as possible in recent weeks.
The New Albany senior forward practiced shooting into a net in his driveway, went on runs and even squeezed in work at local rinks when they still were open. Still, Barash considered that no substitute for what the Eagles had earned to end their season: a trip to their first state tournament.
Despite being seeded fourth in the district tournament and having no players voted first-team all-CHC, New Albany played its best when it mattered most, upsetting top-seeded and previously undefeated Upper Arlington 3-2 in a district semifinal March 1 at Chiller North and dominating the second half of the district final against third-seeded Olentangy Liberty six days later at OhioHealth Ice Haus to win 4-2.
As the Eagles and their fans celebrated, they had no idea that their season had just ended.
New Albany, which was to play Toledo St. Francis in a state semifinal March 14 at Nationwide Arena, had its season ended when all winter tournaments were postponed indefinitely and later canceled.
"It's tough to be prepared for something like that. (Until a decision was made), all we could do was try to stay focused in case there (was) another game," Barash said. "We had so much momentum. We got huge support from our school and people had watch parties planned for the state tournament. It was incredible. If somebody had asked me a few months ago whether we could do this, I'd have laughed and told them they were joking."
The Eagles went 21-14-2 overall and 10-5-1 with 21 points in the CHC-Red Division, fourth behind first-place UA (31, 15-0-1).
After going 1-6 from Jan. 5-18, including two losses to UA by a combined score of 12-3, New Albany went 9-2-1 to end the season.
Largely on the strength of junior Max Dupler's goaltending, the Eagles allowed 2.4 goals per the game in that stretch, a figure slightly inflated by a 6-3 loss to Dublin Jerome on Feb. 1.
Dupler had 40 saves in the district semifinal and 44 against Liberty. Dupler finished the season with 670 saves on 726 shots (92.3 percent).
"He has to be the MVP of our whole team," senior forward Jackson Buss said after the district final. "He played out of his head so much."
Barash, Buss and senior defenseman Max Phillips were honorable mention all-league and Buss was named honorable mention all-state.
Senior forward Matthew Moellering scored a team-high 30 goals, ahead of Buss (24) and Barash (17). Junior forwards Victor Appell and Zach Blaney added 10 each.
Barash had a team-high 42 assists, which also was a single-season program record, and led the Eagles in points with 59, tying Tyler Riddle's mark from 2017-18. Barash easily set the Eagles' career record for assists with 80 and their career points record with 125.
Other players eligible to return include juniors Brandon Beesly (goalie), Zach Blaney (forward), Ian Hoff (defenseman) and Max Murch (defenseman) and sophomore Colin Appell (forward).
After the district final, second-year coach Matt Buss dedicated the win -- and some of the season's success -- to his predecessor, Luke Pavlas. Buss, who played college hockey at Wisconsin, was an assistant in 2018-19 under Pavlas before he stepped down because of family and work obligations.
"None of this would have been possible without Luke Pavlas. He got the ball rolling for us. He put us on the map," Buss said, choking up at times. "He taught these boys a lot. He taught them to win and I learned a lot from him.
"One secret I learned from coach Pavlas is it doesn't matter how good you are at the start of the season (or) at Christmas break. It only matters how good you are at the end of the season. We're at our best at the end."
Zusman's state berth highlights season
Although he did not get to compete in the Division I state tournament, senior Michael Zusman of the wrestling team ended his career by earning his first state berth.
Zusman placed fourth at 145 pounds in the district tournament that concluded March 7 at Hilliard Darby, earning the final berth to state, and finished 46-7.
Zusman, who went 96-31 as a starter the past three seasons and finished with 98 career wins, was New Albany's first state qualifier since Matt Odierno in 2011.
"Michael had a wonderful season and a wonderful career," coach Larry Reichard said. "He reached his goal. He got to state even if he didn't get a chance to step on the mat there. That doesn't change the fact that he was a state qualifier."
The Eagles' other three district qualifiers are eligible to return in junior Colin Swincicki (120, 41-8), sophomore Owen Perry (132, 28-20) and freshman Tyler White (160, 19-24).
Also expected back are juniors Chris Breuer (138), Krishna Gopinath (220) and Gianni Nocera (152), sophomores Ganan Balakrishna (170) and Payton Galbraith (195) and freshman Michael Roth (182).