FINDLAY — The Ottawa Hills soccer team knew the recent history.
A loss in penalty kicks ended last year’s season in the regional final against Mansfield Christian, and another loss to the same opponent began this season.
So when the final whistle blew in Saturday’s Division III regional championship game, a 2-0 Ottawa Hills victory against Mansfield Christian, the Columbus-bound Green Bears raced to the sidelines, where they met their student section in celebration.
Call it a big victory, but don’t call it revenge.
“That’s something I didn’t try to feed the players,” first-year Ottawa Hills coach Robert Gabriel III said of the loss in last year’s tournament. “I didn’t want them to think this was a game of revenge, because this is a brand new season and a brand new team.”
One can argue that this Ottawa Hills team is a completely different team from the team that lost the season opener on Aug. 18. The Green Bears navigated a difficult regular season and postseason schedule, and after Saturday’s win, they have 17 victories to show for it.
“In the beginning of the season, we didn’t really find all of our spots,” senior Brandon Zakeri said. “And we didn’t have all of our men ready, so I think that played a big role and all of our preparation from that spot made a big difference.”
Zakeri scored both of the Ottawa Hills goals, one in the 19th minute, while the other helped seal the victory in the 66th minute.
The first goal was the result of a miscue by Mansfield Christian goalkeeper Robbie Barnhill, who failed to control a harmless kick toward goal from Garrett Robinson, and Zakeri was in the right spot to kick it past the Flames defenders and into the open net.
On the second goal, Zakeri was again opportunistic after a Sam Brochin free kick bounced around the penalty box and finally settled at Zakeri’s feet.
“The ball bounced around for a little while, and I got my heel on it and put it just over the goalie’s hand and just beat him,” Zakeri said.
Ottawa Hills withstood pressure from Mansfield Christian all game. Goalkeeper Michael Geiger had 11 saves, and the Green Bears successfully defended nine corner kicks.
“It’s incredible to have a clean sheet,” Geiger said. “Last year we got scored on off a free kick, and we thought they wouldn’t have scored on us in the run of play. So this year we knew if we played solid defensively they would have trouble scoring. Our back line was incredible. I was fielding crosses and not shots, and I owe that all to them.”
This is the second state semifinal berth in three years for Ottawa Hills. The Green Bears also won the state championship in 2008. They hope the leadership of their nine seniors can build on the trip to Columbus two years ago.
“We’ve been here before, so we have some experience in that, but I could not be more excited to go to States,” Geiger said. “Last time, it was my sophomore year, and now that I’m a senior I feel like I have more experience. This is what I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a freshman.”