By Michael Rich
Griffin Hughes scored five key goals to lead Liberty past district-rival Olentangy 11-8 in the OHSLA Division I Northwest regional semifinal Wednesday night in Powell.
“(Hughes) is a stud … he’s a game-changer,” Patriots coach Jason Godwin said. “He can take a game over whenever he wants to.”
A three-goal margin of victory seems like a blowout between Olentangy and Liberty lately. Four of the previous five games were decided by one goal and the other was decided by two.
“It’s always fun to beat a hometown rival,” Hughes said. “To do it in the third round of the playoffs – it’s just that much bigger of a game … (there’s) that much more energy. It’s a lot of fun to come out on top.”
Liberty (16-4), which took the regular season matchup 15-14 April 13, has won eight straight games and 14 out of 15 after starting the season 2-3.
Hughes’ first goal tied the score 2-2 in the first period and started a run of five straight goals by Liberty in the first half.
Up 4-2 after one quarter, Liberty took a 3-minute penalty with 11:41 left in the half for a stick violation.
Carter Wheat corralled a ground ball and fed Hughes, who went the distance and beat the goalie to push Liberty’s lead to 5-2 with 11 minutes left before halftime.
“(We tried) to overload attack men out – anticipating and kind of gambling to shoot and score,” Olentangy coach Zach Peterson said. “When you don’t score and turn the ball over, you leave yourself vulnerable back on the defensive side and when they have the athletes they have, they transition back and it leaves us shorthanded for four or five seconds.”
Olentangy turned it over twice with the advantage. Alex Lando found Vincent Ramondelli with just over 10 minutes left in the second quarter to give Liberty its largest lead of the game at 6-2. Lando had a goal and two assists and Ramondelli finished with a pair of goals for Liberty.
“We haven’t scored many (shorthanded) this season, so that was definitely needed,” Godwin said.
Olentangy fought back with goals by Riley Bruening, Cam Kennedy and Patrick Grubb in a span of three minutes to cut the deficit to 6-5 with a little over 7 minutes left in the half.
“(Grubb) is a great kid who works his tail off,” Peterson said. “I’m really excited to see what his senior year looks like.”
Grubb led Olentangy with four goals and an assist and Kennedy added a pair of goals.
Eric NeCamp, who led Liberty with three assists, found Hughes with 44 seconds left before halftime to push the lead to 7-5 at the break.
“We just try not to get discouraged,” Hughes said. “We try to come out with a lot of confidence and try to keep our energy up … stay positive. If we just kept fighting, we knew this game was ours.”
Olentangy couldn’t get any closer in the second half. Liberty took the air out of the ball for much of the first six minutes of the third quarter.
Chase Snyder picked up a ground ball and made a long lead pass to Ramondelli to push Liberty’s lead to 8-5 with 5:44 left in the third.
Hughes, meanwhile, scored two key fourth-quarter goals to keep Olentangy at bay. The latter was a highlight reel goal where he caught Johnny Wiseman’s pass mid-air and shot it in one motion before he landed.
“The one where he floated was cool,” Godwin said with a laugh. “The kid is fun to watch … we’re, obviously, very fortunate that he’s on our team and healthy.”
Olentangy (9-12) lost nine games by four goals or less this season, including four by one goal.
“It’s a heartbreaker for our kids,” Peterson said. “We’ve got three seniors – I’m happy for them, but bummed for the opportunities we missed.”
Liberty travels to Cleveland St. Ignatius, a 12-5 winner over Orange in the other semifinal, for the Northwest regional final Saturday night at 7 p.m.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.