The Northview hockey team has reached the pinnacle game the last two seasons, yet the Wildcats remain under the radar this year.
Unranked Northview will be an unlikely underdog when it plays in the state semifinals for the third straight season. The Wildcats will face No. 6-ranked Columbus St. Charles at 1 p.m. Friday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.
Northview (16-13-1), which was state champion in 2012 and runner-up last season, hovered around the .500 mark this season after losing eight players to graduation. But it upset second-ranked St. John's Jesuit 4-2 Saturday at Tam-O-Shanter to win the school's fifth district title in nine years.
Senior forward Cody Estrel, who leads the team in every offensive category, said no one in the locker room was surprised.
“If everyone thought it was a rebuilding year, we let them think that. We came out of nowhere,” Estrel said. “People may say we lost all these seniors and we’re underdogs. But we’ve rebuilt with another strong senior class, so we have that drive and motivation.
“We’re excited, but more focused than anything.”
The other three semifinal teams are ranked in the top six in Ohio — No. 1 Cleveland St. Ignatius takes on No. 4 Mentor Lake Catholic at 4 p.m. Friday.
“It’s accurate to say we are underdogs,” coach Mike Jones said. “Last year means nothing, and certainly two years ago means nothing. We’ve lost to two of the three teams there. We are OK. Anything can happen over the course of two hockey games. We’re excited to prepare and to go.”
St. Charles defeated Northview 5-2 on Dec. 28. Jones said the Cardinals (30-3-2) were definitely the better team.
“They mopped us up,” Jones said. “They were better in all three areas of the ice for three periods.”
At that point Northview had struggled through an up-and-down campaign, and its record was 5-8-0.
“We were missing guys [to injuries] and didn't have our stuff together yet,” Estrel said. “We didn't know our roles yet. But we’ve figured out our roles. We’ve finally started to come together. We’ve played in big games. We all have the same drive and dream.”
At one point Northview lost five games in a row and fell to 4-7-0 on Dec. 22. But Jones said that is when his players began learning to be unselfish.
“That’s when they started listening and applying what we had been preaching. We tell them preparation equals confidence,” Jones said. “We became more disciplined. We started doing things together and doing them as one.”
He also said injuries and disciplinary action led to a lot of key players missing action.
“A lot of kids got thrown into the fire,” Jones said. “We have not played our best hockey. We’ve seen glimpses.”
Senior goalie David Marsh had the best performance of his career Saturday when he stopped 23 shots. He made 10 saves in the second period, where he was the difference.
“This is sweet, but we have to keep focused,” said Marsh, who has a 9-6-1 record and a 2.15 goals-against average.
“He is our last line of defense,” Estrel said. “He has our back, and we play for him.”
Estrel, the captain who anchors the Wildcats' top line, has scored 19 goals to go along with 27 assists for a team-high 46 points. His linemates are brothers Jake and Josh Koback.
Jake Koback, a senior, scored two goals during the final 6 minutes, 39 seconds against St. John’s, including the game-winner. He has 15 goals and has 19 assists. Josh Koback, a junior, has 14 goals and 24 assists.
Estrel said he has been playing on the same line as Jake since they were sophomores.
“Josh has stepped in, and it really helps with that family bond they have,” Estrel said.
Added Jones: “They’ve had a great year. They are great together. There’s certainly some of that backyard and driveway hockey that helps with tendencies.”
The team’s other top line of junior Zack Galecki, junior Ian Clement, and senior Caleb Rau accounted for two goals Saturday.
“They've been very good, too,” Jones said. “We have some depth.”
Rau has tallied 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists), Clement has posted 21 points (6 goals, 15 assists), and Galecki has 18 points (8 goals, 10 assists).
“We have the goal scorers, the play makers, and the grinders,” Estrel said. “Everyone just has to play their role.”
The Cardinals are led by senior goalie Alex Ward, who made 19 saves in his team’s 3-1 win against Olentangy Orange in the district final. Ward (28-3-2) has a 1.13 GAA and eight shutouts.
“They have great goaltending,” Jones said. “We will have to get a ton of traffic [in front of the net]. People have to be willing to go to the tough areas.”
St. Charles is making the school’s first appearance in the state tournament. The Cardinals had never made it past the district semifinals.
While the Columbus district has been seen as by far the weakest, this season is different. A team from central Ohio has not reached the state title game since Centerville in 1979. But the district had two schools in the top 10 of the state rankings — Olentangy Orange and St. Charles.
St. Charles won the Capital Hockey Conference for the first time and is led by 15 seniors. Six players have at least 17 points — Clayton Klosz (31 goals, 25 assists) is the top forward and Ryan Brady (6 goals, 11 assists) the top defenseman.
After winning the school’s first state title in 2012, Northview went 27-7-1 last year and lost 3-1 to Shaker Heights in the final.
“We are looking for redemption from last year,” Estrel said. “For us  seniors this year it’s been in the back of our minds. It makes us mad and it's our drive for this year. We came so close last year.”
Jones hopes the previous trips to state will help.
“It could be important because of the taste left in our mouths when we left the building last year,” he said. “How hungry are you after being that close and limping your way off the ice? It’s a motivating factor.
“We’ve had adversity. These kids are awesome, but it has taken some time to gel as a program. But we’re going from an average season to a bus trip to Columbus.”