The Olentangy Liberty High School boys soccer team thrived on stifling defense and timely goals in advancing to its third consecutive Division I state tournament.
Mason used the same formula to end the Patriots' season in a state semifinal Nov. 6, scoring less than two minutes into the game and limiting Liberty to one shot on goal in a 1-0 win at Centerville.
Comets senior forward Jack Clark, a University of Cincinnati recruit, snuck a goal past Liberty junior goalkeeper Sam Nelson into the lower right corner of the net and Mason's defense took care of the rest.
"They had a nice crossing pass, he got the ball, dribbled across and squared up a good, hard shot," Patriots coach Rick Collins said of Clark's goal. "Mason came at us right away. We struggled all night to really get that one great chance to tie it."
Liberty, which finished 17-4-1 overall and 5-2 in the OCC-Central Division, had defeated Mason 1-0 in a state semifinal last year en route to the program's first state championship.
Nelson made four saves for the Patriots, who had outscored their opponents 17-1 in their five previous postseason games.
According to Collins, Liberty's best chances to score came in the middle of the second half. Off a volley, junior midfielder Donny Deep sent a shot over the net and junior midfielder Ben Hagman couldn't convert on a shot from about 20 yards.
The Patriots' only shot on goal came with about 10 minutes to play.
"We didn't let them behind us," Mason coach Paul Reedy told reporters after the game. "If you don't let a team behind you, it's a lot easier on your defense and your goalkeeper."
The loss ended a season in which the Patriots averaged 2.7 goals per game and were led by Deep, whose 14 goals and five assists earned him first-team all-state, all-district and all-league. Senior forward Taylor Scott had 11 goals and six assists, and junior forward Joey Tallarico had seven goals and a team-high seven assists.
Nelson saved 83 of 93 shots.
A 1-0 loss to Dublin Coffman on Oct. 1 cost the Patriots the OCC-Central championship, and a 1-0 loss to Thomas Worthington seven days later in both teams' league finale forged a second-place tie between Liberty and Thomas. They finished a game behind the Shamrocks (6-1) and ahead of Hilliard Davidson (4-2-1), Upper Arlington (4-3), Marysville (2-4-1), Westland (1-6) and Central Crossing (0-7).
Nonetheless, Liberty earned the top seed in the district tournament and didn't allow a goal until the regional final. After a first-round bye, the Patriots defeated 44th-seeded Franklin Heights 5-0 on Oct. 21, beat 16th-seeded Pickerington North 6-0 on Oct. 23 and edged 12th-seeded St. Charles 1-0 in a district final Oct. 26 at Westerville Central.
Liberty defeated Hilliard Bradley 3-0 in a regional semifinal Oct. 30 at Gahanna and captured its third consecutive regional title Nov. 2 with a 2-1 overtime win over Coffman at Westerville Central. Scott, who had the Patriots' only goal against St. Charles, scored the regional clincher with 9:39 to play in the first overtime.
It was the third consecutive year Liberty ousted Coffman in a regional final.
Senior defender Devin Collins was named first-team all-league and second-team all-district. Senior midfielder Grant Fisher, Nelson and Scott were second-team all-league, senior defender Nick Scherner was special mention all-league and junior forward Anthony DeNoi was honorable mention all-league.
"I don't know how many people thought we'd be back here," said coach Collins, noting the loss of nine starters from last year's state title team. "We had two guys (Nelson and senior defender Austin Ashcraft) play significant minutes (against Mason) who weren't even on varsity last year. We continue to have guys find ways to step up. We've relied on our (seven) seniors a lot, but we relied on our juniors and sophomores quite a bit, too."