By MICHAEL BURWELL
COLUMBUS — Bluffton’s tournament magic finally ran out on Sunday.
After winning in wild, extra-time fashion in its last four matches, the Pirates ran into a juggernaut as Columbus Wellington rolled past the Pirates 4-0 in the OHSAA Division III state boys soccer championship at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus.
“They were very talented and very athletic, and the stage was a little bit bigger than we were today,” Bluffton coach Steve Smucker said. “Lots of emotions, there were some players that didn’t have their best match today and that’s part of the growth experience.
“We haven’t had a lot of experience being here, but proud to be here, proud to be a Pirate today and our team battled. So, I was happy with our effort.”
Columbus Wellington outscored its seven tournament opponents 40-0 en route to winning its first state championship in its first state final appearance. The Jaguars finished 18-2-3.
Bluffton, which was also playing in its first state final, finished its historic season at 18-3-2.
Wellington senior forward Ahmet Ozer recorded a first-half hat trick as the Jaguars’ quick-clearing defense and quick-striking offense scored three goals in the final 21 minutes of the first half.
Less than a minute after Bluffton’s lone shot on goal by Tayton Kleman was stopped by Wellington goalkeeper Aurius Calloway, Henry Lin found Ozer for a shot just outside the box. Ozer fired it past Bluffton goalkeeper Nic Essinger and into the left side of the net for a goal and a 1-0 lead with 20:41 left in the first half.
“We knew Bluffton would try to sit in and be compact. I think the moments where they had some offensive success was also going to be a dangerous moment for them when we won the ball back,” Wellington coach J.J. Bain said. “I think we were looking for that, because we knew it was going to be hard to break them down when they were sitting in. But we knew when they got a couple attacking opportunities, we really wanted to counter quickly.”
Ozer scored his second goal with 16:36 left as Freddie Lin tapped a pass, and Ozer used a spin move to get just enough separation from a Bluffton defender to fire a shot. He found the right side of the net to give the Jaguars a 2-0 lead.
Eli Dulle had the assist on Wellington’s third goal as he fired a pass from midfield to the streaking Ozer down the middle of the field. Ozer’s third score made it 3-0 with 9:14 left in the half.
“Part of our problem was, we ran a certain defensive shape based on the fields we saw all the way up here, which are what 60-65 yards wide? Well this one is 75,” Smucker said. “So what does that do to your game plan? It changes things. So we had to deal with that and there were too many holes today that we just did not have the speed or athleticism to fill.”
Wellington dominated possession, but Bluffton’s defense made some key stops and defensive stands early in the match.
Adenola Atekoja had a great look at a goal, but Essinger came up and made a save from his knees with 34:10 left. Essinger had a diving save with 17:28 left as Jordan Livits rifled a shot from the middle.
Freddie Lin scored Wellington’s final goal as he received a pass from Henry Lin, fired a shot from the left side of the box past Essinger and into the right side of the net.
Wellington had a 17-4 advantage in shots. Essinger made four saves, while Zach Taylor had two for Bluffton.
Calloway had one save for Wellington.
Bluffton’s tournament run included a 1-0 overtime win over Riverdale in the district final, a 2-1 double-overtime victory over Fairview Park Fairview in the regional final, a 1-0 win via penalty kicks against No. 1 Ottawa Hills in the regional final and a 2-1 double-overtime triumph over No. 3 Canfield South Range in the state semifinal.
Despite the loss, it was a remarkable ride that Smucker, his team and the entire Bluffton community will remember for years to come. The Pirates’ crowd was out in full force on Sunday.
“It’s a little intimidating to look out and see so many people here and feel like that’s riding on your shoulders as a high school student, so I get it,” Smucker said. “I’m still proud of them for what they did, all of those overtime games. It was a great run.”