By Matt Mulcahey, Enquirer contributor
Mason’s Gary Zhao doesn’t have much big game experience. As a sophomore sub, Zhao doesn’t have much experience period. But Zhao had something that – at least in the overtime period of Saturday’s Division I regional semifinals – was even more important: fresh legs.
In a physical game in which both teams entered overtime thoroughly exhausted, Zhao came off the bench and used one of those fresh legs to boot the game-winning goal in the match’s 90th minute to propel the Comets past Lakota West, 2-1, and into the state semifinals.
Zhao’s goal – his fifth of the season – advances Mason (20-0-1) to face the winner of Powell Olentangy Liberty (16-3-1) and Dublin Coffman (16-2-2) in the state’s final four round. The game’s location will be announced Monday.
It’s Mason’s second-straight state semifinal berth – the first two in the program’s history.
Senior Jack Clark opened Saturday’s scoring in the 55th minute with a long, bouncing shot following a nifty piece of dribbling.
Even Lakota West coach Rick Cooper feared that might be all Mason needed considering the Rockets allowed only four goals total in 20 games this season.
But a scant five minutes later the Firebirds answered against that seemingly impenetrable defense when junior Christian Lytle netted a shot following a long throw-in by senior teammate Hunter Stiger.
“When (Jack Clark scored), I thought, ‘That could be it.’ Because Mason doesn’t give up goals,” Cooper said. “But we battled back pretty quickly. (Our players) have done that all year.”
The Firebirds (16-3-2) wouldn’t get the opportunity to battle back from Zhao’s goal, a blasted 25-footer that sailed over the outstretched arms of Lakota West’s leaping keeper to end the game in the first sudden victory overtime period.
“A shot like that, I don’t even know what to say other than it was amazing – a missile to (the upper corner of the net), nothing the goalkeeper could do,” Mason coach Paul Reedy said.
Star of the Game
Senior defender Josh Grant, the backbone of a Comets’ defense that has posted 16 shutouts this season.
“Josh is just outstanding,” Cooper said. “He sees the game really well. If Mason does make a mistake, he’s able to clean those things up.”
Play of the Game
“It’s such a luxury to be able to bring a player like Gary off the bench,” Reedy said.
View from the sideline
Cooper on Lakota West’s goal: “That’s a typical Lakota West set piece – a scrum in the middle of the box and we put one of them away. That’s kind of how we’ve scored goals all year, just working hard.”
Lakota West’s seniors were part of three regional championship games in their time with the program…With the victory, Mason extends the winningest season in the team’s history … Clark’s goal was his 29th of the season. He’s scored in 18 of the Comets’ 21 games.