There’s a lot at stake this weekend as the Blue Jackets Cup will award a championship to a high school team from central Ohio.
The Capital Hockey Conference season-ending tournament will crown the region’s best program for the season, and no doubt that means a lot for the teams competing to lift the trophy at the end of the day.
“We’re doing this for the CBJ Cup,” said Kevin Alexander, head coach of the CHC regular season champion Olentangy Liberty program. “I know a lot of people outside of high school hockey don’t think the CBJ Cup is a big deal. I can tell you, being the team that lost that last CBJ Cup game and watching our boys scream their eyes, the seniors, especially those standing on the blue line waiting to get their medals, I can’t express it enough (how important this tournament is).”
And this year’s tournament, which is presented by OhioHealth, is expected to be very competitive. It’s been a regular-season battle, with Liberty emerging with a 15-1-0 league record to win the title, and expectations are with four top-10 teams in the state continuing through to the tournament. .
Liberty tops the state standings at No. 5, while Upper Arlington — the two-time defending CBJ Cup champion — is seeded sixth after finishing second in the CHC. Third-placed Olentangy Berlin sits eighth in the national rankings, while fourth-placed St. Charles is No. 10.
And for those who spent a lot of time in high school hockey in the area, they see the quality of hockey in Central Ohio increasing as one would expect given those high ranking spots.
“We just keep getting better here in Columbus,” Upper Arlington coach Hamish Baird said. “With the top four teams – Liberty, Berlin, Upper Arlington and St. Charles – these are all very competitive games, and anyone can win these games. All the teams have a lot of talent and experience and a good coaching. ”
“I feel like a Central Ohio team is potentially good enough this year to maybe win it all,” St. Charles coach Rob Sangster added.
But before that happens, the CBJ Cup will allow a team to celebrate a title in a tournament-style venue. Quarter-final action in the College Division begins tonight with four matches, as Olentangy Liberty (15-1-0 CHC Red) takes on eighth-seeded Thomas Worthington (10-6-0 CHC White). at Chiller North, Upper Arlington (13- 3-0 CHC Red) will face seventh-seeded Cincinnati St. Xavier (10-5-0-1 CHC White) at Chiller Dublin, Berlin (12-3-1 CHC Red ) will face sixth-seeded Dublin Jerome (10-5-1 CHC White) at Chiller Dublin and St. Charles (10-5-1 CHC Red) will face fifth-seeded Cincinnati Moeller (5-8-1-1 CHC Red) in Chiller North.
The semi-finals will then take place on Saturday at Chiller North and Chiller Dublin, with the title match scheduled for Sunday at 2 p.m. at Chiller North.
Olentangy Liberty enters the top seed after winning 14 straight, including 13 consecutive conference games after a Dec. 10 loss to Berlin. The following weekend, the team went 1-1-2 in a tournament hosted by Parma Padua, which proved to be a turning point for the campaign.
“We left Padua with our tails between our legs,” said Alexander. “We had very little buy-in from players on all sides of the ice. We changed the forecheck a bit, we changed a few of our systems and for some reason we started to have a bit of success. We went from zero purchases- and the guys weren’t working so hard in games, and something clicked with a bit of success. We kind of went from being a pretty average team that the kids didn’t believe, the coaches were wondering, where now we have this incredible purchase – in what I’ve never seen before.”
Liberty is led by Sully Plancon’s 40 points (12 goals, 28 assists), while Gage Schlotterbeck has a team-high 28 goals among his 38 points. Freshman Jake Struck adds a 14-23-37 line on a breakout campaign, while Eric Bauermeister has eight goals and 32 points on the year. Brian Savage (14 goals) and Jacob Kempa (12) are also in double digits on tallies, while goaltender Benton “Bubba” Roberts is 21-5-3 with a 2.14 GAA and save percentage. 0.907 stops.
Schlotterbeck, Plancon and Shane Flanagan (9-12-21) are the team captains, and the team is hoping to win the Blue Jackets Cup for the first time since 2011.
“We had a bit of a Buffalo Bills complex where we were second in the league, we lost a bunch of CBJ Cup finals, so I can’t lie – it was cool to be 15 -1- 0 and winning the red division and the league,” Alexander said. “It was the most fun run we’ve had in Liberty Hockey since I’ve been on the program.”
However, Upper Arlington will not give up their two-year Cup reign easily. Last year’s Columbus District champion and state semifinalist is led by one of the best lines in the state with Sam Burns posting an incredible line of 45-39-84, Max Robins adding 29 goals and 38 assists for 67 points, and Charlie Linzell totaling 13 goals. and 30 dots.
Burns and Sam Cannon (6-22-28) are the team captains, while there is depth in the form of Noah Domagalski (11-19-30) and Carson Gresock (6-7-13 in 14 games). In goal, the team replaced all-state graduate goaltender Garrett Alderman with the duo of Preston Bernard and Brady Hagkull.
The Golden Bears took on some of the best teams in the state and beat third-placed Lakewood St. Edward, fourth-placed Gilmour Academy and one of Michigan’s top teams, Flint Powers. UA are also coming on a roll after winning seven games in a row.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Baird said. “I think they’ve really made a team. We’ve got a good culture and a good group. It’s a tight room, and I think that kind of stuff matters when it’s the third period and it’s a tight game.They have a lot of trust in each other.
Berlin, meanwhile, was in contention for a conference title in the school’s fourth year of existence, and what was once a young group became contenders under head coach Tim Pennington. Zach Zielinski and Luke DeChristopher remain from the original team, but there has been huge buy-in from everyone to make Berlin one of the top not only in the region but in the state.
“It’s awesome,” Pennington said. “Our freshman year, all we had was freshmen and sophomores and a few juniors. I remember in our district tournament game, we played at Liberty and we were outplayed 80-2 in the game because we were down to seven players at the end of due to injuries and being new school.
“For us to be where we are right now, ranked top 10 in the state, I’m just proud of our guys and where they came from. Our motto has always been ‘us, not me’ and it’s really a very selfless team that we have here.”
Pennington also pointed to depth and speed as his team’s hallmarks, and that helps team captain Carson Jankowski’s tremendous offensive ability. The senior has a club record 34 goals and 65 points, including four hat-tricks this season, while Zielinski – who scored the first goal in program history – has 31 goals among his 42 points and Nick Piccioni has a 23-46-69 line. Tyler Abare (16-23-39) and Chris Brennan (15-17-32) add scoring depth, while goaltender Kai Nelson was “incredible” in Pennington’s words.
St. Charles, meanwhile, was hit hard by last year’s CBJ Cup graduation losses and district runner-up, but still played some good hockey. The hope for the Cardinals will be to turn narrow losses into wins, as St. Charles is a combined 0-6-1 against Liberty, Berlin and UA on the year, but four of the losses were by two goals or less. St. Charles also pushed No. 2-ranked Toledo St. Francis into overtime before a 1-0 loss earlier this year.
“We’re here, and every day, if we’re playing good tight defense and smashing the net, getting some deep pucks and getting some luck with the puck and some good rebounds and creating some energy, especially for us at the start of games, we have a chance against anyone,” Sangster said as his team chased their first Blue Jackets Cup win since 2014.
The strength of the team lies in an experienced defensive corps led by senior goaltenders Cooper Tyson and Grand Wolf as well as a trio of senior defensemen in Sam Mickey (8-18-26), Erich Schoettmer (9-9-18) and Tristan Fahs (1-13-14). Up front, Lou McKinney has a team-high 22 goals among his 30 points, while his brother Myles has added 19 and Quinn Brady has 17.
More hockey action: There is also a consolation bracket for the varsity programs that started earlier this week and are down to eight finals – Olentangy Orange, No. 9, No. 10 Dublin Coffman, No. 11 New Albany, No. 12 Olentangy, No. 13 Gahanna, No. 14 Worthington Kilbourne, No. 15 Columbus Academy and No. 18 Columbus DeSales. The title match is Sunday at Chiller North at 5 p.m.
For JV, the tournament has moved into the semifinals, where No. 1 seed Liberty and No. 4 seed Upper Arlington will face off on Saturday, as will No. 6 seed St. Charles and St. Xavier, number 2. The final is Sunday at 11 a.m. at Chiller IceWorks.
At the club level, the Ohio School Hockey League will also host its Blue Jackets Cup tournament this weekend, with the quarterfinals on Friday, the semifinals on Saturday and the final on Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Ice Haus. The Dayton Stealth have the top seed and a bye after going 14-0-3 this year in the league and beating the teams 132-22. The Hilliard Wildcats are next at 10-4-3 followed by the Newark Generals (9-7-1), Miami Red Hawks (8-9-1), Northeast Storm (7-9-1), Westerville Warcats (7-11-0) and the Pickerington Prowlers (1-16-1).
(Photo courtesy of Lisa Rengel)