By Michael Rich
Olentangy Liberty junior goalie Emma Campbell summed it up best when she said, “revenge is definitely sweet.”
The Patriots, who lost to the Braves in a regional semifinal last fall, stamped a ticket to the state semifinal with a 1-0 victory over Olentangy to capture the first regional title in program history Saturday afternoon at Westerville Central High School.
The game’s lone goal came with 5:42 left in the first half, when Sarina Dirrig cut off a clearing attempt and floated a shot over Olentangy goalie Kelsey Hill’s head from about 35 yards away.
“It started drifting and I thought it was going to go just behind it, but it dropped in,” Dirrig said. “I saw it bounce up and hit the back of the net and I just took off sprinting looking to hug somebody.”
“We have talked to our girls so much about, ‘you have to be the first to score,’ mentally and intensity-wise,” Liberty coach Kristen McMahon said. “It’s extremely important in the tournament and, luckily, we were able to do that. I wish we could have gotten a few more on them — that was the goal. But, we’ll take the 1-0 win.”
Dirrig has been Liberty’s most consistent scorer this season, leading the team with 20 goals, including six of the team’s 11 tournament goals.
Hill, who made three saves, has had an equally impressive tournament run for Olentangy, recording three shutouts in five games while allowing only two goals in the tournament.
“She’s definitely a huge part of this team and she played well (Saturday) — she had some huge saves,” Olentangy coach Megan Kirsten said. “She gives the girls confidence to step to the ball.”
Olentangy’s best opportunity came off a corner kick. Melina Endsley placed it perfectly and Stephanie Burzynski was there to re-direct it on goal. Campbell made a diving stop, though, preserving the 1-0 lead late in the second half.
“I put that as one of the best saves I’ve had all year,” Campbell said. “It was amazing to just keep my team in the game like that.”
Olentangy had plenty of chances, especially on corner kicks. The Braves had 10 corner kicks, but couldn’t take advantage.
The shutout was the first of the tournament for Campbell, who made five saves.
“She had a stellar game,” McMahon said. “She’s continued to improve throughout the season and she’s saved us multiple times. We couldn’t have done it without her.”
The 1-0 final was indicative of just how evenly matched the squads were. Their progress throughout the year almost mirrored each other.
Olentangy (14-5-2) began the year 2-2-2 before turning it on to win the next three games. A 4-1 loss to Liberty Oct. 1 was the second loss in three games and the last loss until Saturday’s regional final.
“Last year when we reached the regional final, in my head, I didn’t realize how close to states it was,” Kirsten said. “This year, it felt, even to the girls, it was so much closer. The timeline — this game and then Tuesday and then Friday … that’s states. That’s so close.”
Liberty (15-5-1) was 4-4-1 after a tie at Clay. The Patriots won the next six games before dropping the finale to Worthington Kilbourne — a team they knocked out in the district semifinal.
“The first half of the season was a little rough — we were a little bit up and down,” McMahon said. “Our scores weren’t always consistent with how we played. I think it was really about mid-September — I saw us just turn a corner.”
McMahon said she’s always felt her team had enough talent, but lacked experience — something that would get fixed with the progression of the season.
“At the very beginning of the season, I saw the talent that was returning,” she said. “Everyone was focusing on the fact that we’re losing 10 seniors and we’re losing all these kids that have done so much for us. I saw girls that we could plug in and they just needed the experience.”
The Patriots play Loveland in the state semifinal Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Centerville.
“We’re all super happy, but nobody’s satisfied yet,” Dirrig said. “It’s so realistic now, we’re in the state semifinal — the furthest we’ve ever gone as a program. If we win Tuesday, we’ll be playing in Crew Stadium, and that’s our goal.”
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.