Looking at the latest high school hockey polls, it's clear that Columbus has established itself as one of the high school hockey hot spots in the state.
In the latest Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) ice hockey poll, released Jan. 13, five Columbus area schools received votes--a huge indication of how far high school hockey in central Ohio has come along in the past decade.
Just how much has high school hockey in Columbus evolved in the last few years? Let's rewind and take a look.
When he first started coaching high school hockey in 2002, current Olentangy Liberty head coach Jack Hoogeveen became the first ever head hockey coach at Gahanna Lincoln High School--one of just six or seven Columbus area high schools with an ice hockey program at the time. The Columbus Blue Jackets were entering their third season and were still a relatively under-the-radar professional sports team downtown. At the time, it was a rare occurance to have a Columbus team in the state standings, as the Brooklyn and Sylvania district high schools dominated Ohio high school hockey.
Today, the number of local Columbus high schools has expanded to 14, with the hope of adding at least two more programs (New Albany and Columbus Academy) in the coming years. This is a big indication of not just the popuation growth of the area, but also the local interest in ice hockey.
Hoogeveen says that interest has grown due to the Blue Jackets organization's development of hockey in the area and that the team has provided more resources and visibility for the sport to really take root in central Ohio.
"The coverage the team receives provides a basis of knowledge for players, parents and school administrators," said Hoogeveen. "There are also a lot of former Blue Jackets that have helped develop local talent, including Andrew Cassels and Freddy Modin."
Olentangy Orange high school head coach Tim Pennington agrees that the community's awareness and recognition of the Blue Jackets and other professional hockey teams like the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones and Toledo Walleye have increased the profile of the sport.
"With the Blue Jackets in Columbus, hockey is way more high-profile than it used to be," said Pennington. "They make their coaching staff accessible and available for clinics and to speak with teams in the area, which makes us better. Any time we've asked the Blue Jackets to help us with something, they've been very accommodating."
Greg Kirstein, who was instrumental in instituting and expanding the hockey programs in the Dublin high schools, and works for the Blue Jackets, also attributed population growth around central Ohio as another key factor, simply because the increase in residents has led to the creation of more schools, and therefore more natural competition.
"We're starting to see a lot more people here from Chicago, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh in this area who have hockey knowledge and backgrounds, rather than people originally from Ohio," said Kirstein. "These parents get their kids involved with hockey, then become involved themselves in getting club teams at their schools, then eventually getting the athletic directors and school superintendent on board to make the club teams into varsity programs."
The competition level of high school hockey has driven a handful of local high school players to continue their hockey careers at the junior, college club level and NCAA Division I level at schools such as Ohio University, Miami of Ohio and Cornell. Several of the local coaches are seeing more kids continue playing the sport even after high school graduation.
"Most of the kids we coach at the high school level now go on to play college club," said Pennington. "But we are seeing a big growth in the number of kids advancing on to the junior level and make it to Division I programs. That number is just going to keep growing."
Darcy Cahill, head coach at Dublin Coffman, has experience coaching the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets and has volunteered at several summer hockey school sessions put on by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Several of the hockey players Cahill coached at the youth level went on to play high school hockey in Columbus, and he's enjoyed seeing their progress over the years.
"We're getting to the group of kids I started coaching when they were five, six years old just now reaching the high school level," said Cahill. "These kids have grown up with the sport and it's cool to see how they've grown as student athletes. We're not just seeing growth and excitement at the high school level either--Columbus now has the resources and facilities for kids to start playing hockey from a young age, and that's creating more opportunities locally for them as they get older."
Looking forward to the future, as youth hockey continues to grow, Kirstein hopes to see more high school club teams become varsity programs, and for smaller Division III schools to make the jump from club teams to NCAA programs as well.
"It'll take time, money, volunteers and effort, but it's already in the beginning stages of progression and we're seeing a continual growth program," said Kirstein. "The more we can grow the participation and visibility, the more people we'll get on board and the more excitement we'll have. The more we can grow those, the better off the sport and schools will be."
Schools in the top five
Last week, the Ohio state hockey poll featured six Columbus area schools--the most in state ice hockey history. Though this week had only five of those schools receive votes, it is still a big accomplishment for Columbus high school hockey. Below is a look at each of the five schools that received votes in the lastest OHSAA poll:
Olentangy Orange High School (7th in the state poll, 1st in the Cincinnati-Columbus-Dayton poll)
Currently listed as the best Columbus-based high school in the state, Pennington credits his team's balance of youthful energy and experienced leaders for their impressive play this season.
"We have a good combination of kids who know the program and some younger guys who bring the energy to the roster," said Pennington.
Columbus St. Charles High School (8th in the state poll, 2nd in the Cincinnati-Columbus-Dayton poll)
Head coach Rob Sangster is pleased with where his varsity team is at this point in the season. The team boasts a 19-3-1 record and has outscored all opponents 60-9 this season. They'll be a key contender for the state title if they continue to play with the cohesion and dominance they've exhibited thus far.
Olentangy Liberty High School (received votes in the state poll, 4th in the Cincinnati-Columbus-Dayton poll)
Under Hoogeveen, Liberty has posted a 9-10-2 record (7-2-2 in league play). After a slow start, he attributes the team's recent success to several factors, including voting for captains, great goaltending, special teams play and the overall development of less-skilled players after losing so many to graduation last year.
"We're seeing a lot more contribution from our younger players," said Hoogeveen. "Sophomore goaltender Cam Perry has come up with key saves to keep us in games, like when we were outshot 46-24 against the No. 1 team at the time (Dublin Jerome) and salvaged a tie. We keep finding ways to win and are playing better as a team."
Upper Arlington High School (received votes in the state poll, 6th in the Cincinnati-Columbus-Dayton poll)
The Golden Bears have an extremely experienced roster, with the majority of the players in their junior and senior seasons. Under the leadership of captains Carter Braet, Evan Lewis and Owen McClellan and head coach Jay Graham, the team has a 13-9-2 record and hopes to use their years of experience to their advantage in the Blue Jackets Cup and post season play.
Dublin Coffman High School (received votes in the state poll, 5th in the Cincinnati-Columbus-Dayton poll)
It's head coach Darcy Cahill's first season as head coach of the team, but that's hard to tell based on the team's success thus far. They were off to a quick start, including the school's first victory over rival high school Dublin Jerome in several years. As of late, the team has struggled a bit, but Cahill is not complaining about what he calls the "down time."
"It's better that we're struggling now rather than in two weeks from now when we're playing for the Blue Jackets Cup and in the playoffs," said Cahill. "We just need to keep working and we've been building toward our goal of winning the state title. I believe that a Columbus team can be the state champion this year, and we'll be one of the schools in the mix."