Let there be little doubt how good the hockey in central Ohio is becoming at the high school level.
Upper Arlington entered last weekend's competition for the Blue Jackets Cup, the championship of the Capital Hockey Conference, with an undefeated record this year and ranked second in the state of Ohio, but there was no guarantee the Golden Bears would bring home the trophy.
On the other side of the bracket loomed state-ranked Olentangy Liberty and St. Charles teams, while the Golden Bears faced last year's state runner-up, Dublin Jerome, in the semifinals.
Yet this was an Upper Arlington team that would not be denied, with a dedication that started in summer workouts and continued through an unblemished campaign. The top-seeded Golden Bears beat Cincinnati Moeller in the quarterfinals by a 5-1 score, outlasted Jerome in a taut 2-1 final in the semis, then downed St. Charles in a 3-0 blanking Sunday to earn the trophy for the first time in school history.
"It's outstanding for our guys," UA head coach Brett Howden said. "Our seniors have been through three coaching staffs in four years. The program is the oldest high school program here in central Ohio, I think 43 years this year. They've had some prior success back in the day, but we have had an outstanding season.
"To win, it means a lot to all of us. It's one of the things that we had as our team goals going into the year, so we were really happy we could accomplish it."
In the title game against St. Charles in a packed OhioHealth Ice Haus, Upper Arlington got the winning goal from Duncan MacDonald late in the second period to break the scoreless tie. Sam Burns added another goal before Will Lawless' empty-netter, and goalie Garrett Alderman made 21 saves.
Howden pointed to Alderman as one of the backbones of the team's success as well as Lawless and Tim Kramer, who are the co-captains.
"It starts with our two captains," the head coach said. "Will Lawless is our captain on defense. I may be a little biased, but he's probably the best defenseman in central Ohio, maybe in the state for high school hockey. Tim was a kid who is a bit of a transplant. He came to our team, this is only his second year, he's out of Grand Rapids, Mich.
"It starts with them and the leadership that they have instituted throughout the summer and into the fall camps, holding guys accountable, but on the ice they're both up there in terms of points and leading our team in minutes. And then Alderman in net, he's had an outstanding year. I think he's up to 11 or 12 shutouts now."
Howden said he also appreciated the community support, as the Ice Haus featured plenty of Upper Arlington supporters as well as those from St. Charles for the CHC title game.
"We noticed a lot earlier this season the community getting behind us when we were starting to make a run," Howden said. "It's been really exciting for these guys to have that support and not just have the school support but to have the overall community backing us."
St. Charles and Olentangy Liberty entered the tournament each tied for seventh in the state rankings, with Liberty earning the No. 2 seed for the tournament, but St. Charles won the semifinal matchup Saturday by a 3-2 score in double overtime.
Cincinnati St. Xavier defeated Thomas Worthington to earn the consolation championship.
Now all the teams get ready for state tournament play, with games beginning Friday and the district tournament concluding March 7 at the Ice Haus. The Ohio High School Athletic Association's state semifinals and championship games will be held in Nationwide Arena on March 14-15.
While Upper Arlington enters the tourney at 34-0-1, it will have to go through the same gantlet as it did to earn the Blue Jackets Cup, and Howden knows it won't be easy to try to follow in Jerome's footsteps and earn the chance to keep perennial power Cleveland St. Ignatius from its fifth straight title.
"Six is the number," Howden said, signifying how many wins away the squad is from a state title. "What (head coach Pat) Murphy and Jerome did last year, breaking through and becoming the first central Ohio team to win a semifinal and get to that state final, I think it really opened doors for the rest of us to be like, 'We can do it, too.'"