DEFIANCE — Against Ottawa-Hill in the Division III regional finals, Nic Essinger made save after save and after 110 minute he stopped each shot and knew he would be asked to do the same in penalty kicks.
The Pirate keeper did not disappoint as he made two big saves in the penalty kick phase to helped Bluffton beat Ottawa Hills 4-2 in penalty kicks and propel the Pirates to the Division III state semifinals Saturday.
The two teams battled to a 0-0 tie after regulation and the two overtimes.
“We knew they were going to be bringing and I just had to be ready for it and I was,” Essinger said. “I knew I had to make some big saves to keep us in it and I did.”
Bluffton, who is making its first state appearance in soccer, plays Canfield South Ridge, who won 3-0 over Kidron Central Catholic, at a site to be determined at 7 p.m. Thursday. Ottawa Hills ends its season with a 16-3-2 mark.
“We just want to keep playing well,” Bluffton head coach Steve Smucker said. “The result is great but we wanted to play well and the big deal for us was shutting out Ottawa-Hills. That was something I wouldn’thave know we were capable of a couple of months ago. I thought defensively we played pretty well. I thought we limited there chances and if you do that the game will come your way.”
Smucker added that Essinger’s performance was something they work and added that they practiced for such a situation.
“Our goal keeper coach Russell Bender has been developing a number of good keepers the last number of years and we have Dakota Clymer who was an all-district goal keeper and Nic has followed in those footsteps and we train on it.”
Smucker said one of the keys to not allowing a score was just keeping the defenisve shape.
“We just wanted to keep our shape defensively,” Smucker added. “It is a shape that we work at and knowing they are going to come at us really fast we just had to weather the storm and play out of it. I felt like we did. They had some good chances but they just didn’t fall.
In the penalty kicks, Simon Derstine, Jonathon Schriner, Collin Oglesbee and Taylor Kleman, who made the final boot, all were successful.
Essinger turned back the first penalty shot, gave up two goals, and then stopped Iggy Garcia-Mata to set up the win.
Prior to the penalty kicks the two teams engaged in a defensive battle and although the two teams had opportunities both defenses and the two goalies were up for challenge.
Bluffton nearly repeated what happened in the regional semifinal win against Fairview Park Fairview Thursday. With the clock winding down to three minutes in the second overtime, Bluffton almost pulled out the win when a misplayed ball by Ottawa-Hills bounced to an awaiting Kaden Basil inside the box. Basil blasted the ball towards the goal but Green Bear keeper Graham Tunis made a diving save to prevent the score.
Ottawa-Hills looked to end the match early in the first overtime with two solid chances in the opening minutes, however, Essinger, who had been stopping Green Bear shots all night, came through on both attempts’
Bluffton, while not having as many opportunities as Ottawa-Hills, had two big opportunities but like his Bluffton counterpart, Tunis, came up big for the Green Bears.
Late in the first overtime, it appeared Green Bears punched their tickets to the final four. With play entering the final two minutes. Ottawa-Hills shot a point blank range shot that Essinger slide kicked away for the first save. The Green Bears picked up the rebound but the second chance went high and Bluffton exhaled.
Much like the first half, the second half saw both teams fail to score. Bluffton looked to gain some momentum came out as the aggressor and made some deep probes into Ottawa-Hills’ territory but were unable to convert a goal.
Towards the end of the second half, the Green Bears tested Essinger again and the Pirate keeper continued to make saves to preserve the shutout.
Neither team had any major scoring opportunities in the first 20 minutes of the game as the two squads probed but never penetrated each other’s defense.
In the final 20 minutes, the Green Bears began to force the issue and produced to golden chances to score but Bluffton goalie Nic Essinger was up to the task.
The first opportunity came with 14:45 left in the first half when Essinger batted away an Ottawa-Hill shot from from Josh Kight about 10 yards out to avoid the score.
About four minutes later Essinger made a spectacular diving save on a header from inside the box to keep the Green Bears from scoring.