COLUMBUS – Charlie Hughes may have shied away from taking all the credit in leading the Olentangy Liberty hockey team to a state championship.
But he certainly didn’t shy away from the moment in the Patriots’ 6-2 victory over Hunting Valley University School on Sunday at Nationwide Arena.
“No, no,” Hughes said after with a wry smile after senior defenseman Jacob Kempa credited him as the difference-maker for Liberty this season.
“Buying in was a huge part of it,” he added. “We knew, coming in, what we had to do. Everyone stuck to their role. That’s a big part of it – trust yourself, trust your teammates and trust your coaches. We did that and I think it shows here.”
Hughes, a first-year player with the Patriots after playing AAA with the New Jersey Junior Titans and the Ohio Blue Jackets his first three seasons, scored four goals and was 21 of 26 on face offs to lead the Patriots (39-1-1). Sophomore forward Jake Struck had three assists.
“Oh, no regrets,” he said when asked about the decision to play with Liberty. “I should have done it earlier. But I’m glad we have a state championship. This has probably been the best week of my life.”
With the win, the Patriots are the first team from central Ohio to win a state championship in the 45-year history of the OHSAA tournament. It’s also the third team championship at Liberty after the boys soccer team won in 2012 and the baseball team won in 2018.
The Patriots, ranked second in the state according to MyHockeyRankings.com, defeated Cleveland St. Ignatius, the top-ranked team, 4-3 in the semifinal, becoming the second central Ohio team to play for a title after Dublin Jerome in 2019.
“Charlie was the difference,” Liberty coach Kevin Alexander said. “I don’t think (anyone on the team) would argue that. These guys just needed one extra push to get over the top.”
It’s a far cry from how the season ended last year when the Patriots lost to Upper Arlington 3-2, where the winning goal was scored with 4.9 seconds remaining in regulation.
This season, the Patriots rolled through the regional tournament, outscoring opponents 43-4, including a 10-1 victory over the Golden Bears in the final to avenge last season’s loss.
“The feeling of not winning a game so important like that is just terrible,” senior defenseman Carson Reynolds said. “So, we just made sure it wouldn’t happen again.”
Liberty ended the season on an 18-game winning streak, tying Walsh-Jesuit 2-2 on Jan. 15, and a 35-game undefeated streak with its only loss of the season coming against Lakewood St. Edward 3-0 on Nov. 27 in the team’s fifth game.
“I wouldn’t call it perfect, to be honest,” senior defenseman Vinny Rengel said. “We’ve had our ups and downs. But when you finish off the way we did, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Hughes’ first goal, which came on a power play with 5:58 remaining in the first period gave Liberty the lead.
He scored twice more in the second period sandwiched around a Reynolds goal that pushed the lead to four. The three goals came within about 2 and a half minutes of each other.
Samonte Martin and Luke Palmer each scored within 22 seconds of each other as the Preppers (29-9-1) closed within 4-2 late in the second. But that’s as close as it got.
“Their passing chemistry was great,” University senior defenseman Will Genovese said. “They were flying around, drawing guys to them and just moving it off. They beat us with their speed and had good puck movement. So, it was hard to defend.”
Noah Caballero had 38 saves for the Preppers, who were outshot 44-20.
“I don’t think we got out-shot all year,” Alexander said. “That’s how sneaky these guys were.”
Contact Michael Rich at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mrichnotwealthy.