COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In the first-round match of the 2014 NCAA tournament, Ohio State advanced past Akron in a 1-1 double overtime tie after a 15-round (13-12, OSU wins) finish on penalty kicks at Bert L. & Iris S. Wolstein Field in Columbus. The Buckeyes (9-7-5) will now travel to face No. 1 seed Notre Dame (11-4-4) in the second round at 7 p.m. ET Sunday in South Bend, Indiana.
Yes, you read it right – 15 rounds. An NCAA spokesman did not have an answer for the most PK attempts for a Division I men’s soccer match. It might not be a record, but for 24th-year coach John Bluem, including 18 seasons at Ohio State, he hasn’t even seen anything close to how it ended Thursday night.
“I’ve never been involved in a penalty kick situation that lasted that long,” said Bluem, the 2014 Big Ten Coach of The Year. “With it being as cold as it was, we were all freezing and we all just wanted it to be over. Our guys were just remarkable.”
On the 30th penalty attempt of the session, junior co-captain midfielder Zach Mason sent in the eventual game winner while senior co-captain goalkeeper Alex Ivanov made three saves during the never-ending PK marathon to advance the Scarlet and Gray to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2008 season.
“There wasn’t the pressure of losing the game,” Mason said. “Obviously, I knew if I made it, we won. I was excited to have the opportunity to have the chance to help our team to the next round.”
Mason buried his second attempt into the middle right of net past Akron goalkeeper Jake Fenlason, who was as cool and calm as Ivanov during the PK finish. Mason’s never scored in his three years at Ohio State but netted home the penalty kick winner in the most important game of his career.
“At first, it’s relieving and then it’s just euphoria after that,” Mason said. “I couldn’t even think. I was so excited.”
Ivanov showed why he deserves to be a Senior CLASS Award Finalist, making three saves in the PK sessions. He denied Stuart Holthusen during the third round and stopped an attempt by the Sean Sepe in the 12th round. Ivanov kept his collegiate career alive with his third and final save in the 15th round against Robby Dambrot with a dive to the far post. He finished with four stops vs. the Zips.
“This is what being a Buckeye is all about and we battle to the end,” Ivanov said. “We believe we can do it. It took 15 penalty kicks but we persevered and we did it. We’re really happy we wrote our ticket to Notre Dame.”
The penalty kicks lasted so long, both teams had to go to players that didn’t even touch the ball in the 110 minutes with their seasons on the line. Senior back Konrad Kucharski walked up to take the team’s ninth attempt and buried it to send it to a tenth round.
“We were able to change the order after the first 10 kickers,” Bluem said. “We could now pick any of the 10 to go and the guys that missed or were a little shaky we could switch their order a little bit and we choose the right ones obviously.”
Freshmen Marcus McCrary and Hunter Robertson then got both a little older after converting the 10th and 11th chances followed by netters by sophomore Danny Jensen, junior Liam Doyle and senior Yianni Sarris to set up Mason. Juniors Kyle Culbertson and sophomore Christian Soldat also netted PKs. In all, nine different Buckeyes converted for the Scarlet and Gray. Both Ohio State and Akron missed during the third and 11th rounds to make things even more intense.
“It started to drag on for a while but you just have to focus and at that point you just have to pick away and dive,” Ivanov said. “You just have to try to get your hands there and make the save as best you can.”
Overall shots were an even 13-13, while Akron held a 9-7 lead in corners. It was the coldest soccer match in recent history for the Buckeyes as the temperature dropped to as low as 24 degrees by the end of the match. The gusty winds made it feel like close to 14 degrees by the 15th PK round.
After the first 30 minutes went scoreless, the Zips scored in the 31st minute on a regulation penalty kick following a foul in the box. A Buckeye defender fell on top of an attacking Zip player inside the penalty area to force the referee to blow the whistle. Adam Najem converted the attempt when he sent a low into the back right of the net at 30:37.
Two minutes later, the Buckeyes thought they scored a goal, but Akron made a great clear to keep it 1-0. At 32:28, Jensenheaded a ball from five yards out in front of net, but Akron forward Sean Sepe reacted quickly and made a kick save on the goal line to keep it a 1-0 score. At half, shots were 4-1 in favor of the Zips.
The Buckeyes then had the wind at their backs to start the second half and it paid off in the 67th minute when Culbertson, a double transfer from Akron and Columbia, sent in a sliding shot from the far post off a free kick from Doyle from 30-plus yards away. The equalizer was his fourth best of the year.
“We definitely didn’t want to go down twice,” Culbertson said. “Akron isn’t a team that we like to lose to since they are our in-state rival. I think we’ve gotten a lot stronger and we knew as long as we didn’t beat ourselves, we had the tools to put it away and we didn’t think that they could beat us.”
The last five minutes of play were semi-crazy compared to what was to come. A blast by Akron’s Najem in the 87th minute went off the crossbar and bounced just in front of the goal line to keep it 1-1. Then, McCrary sped down the far side and sent a shot off the top right of the bar for the Buckeyes in the 89th. Both teams couldn’t score in the two overtime periods to set up the PK stomach-wrenching finish.
“As it gets later and later in the overtime period for me personally, I’m happy when it gets to penalties,” Bluem said. It’s incredible to win in overtime but to lose that way is just the worst feeling in the world. I’d rather get to the penalty kick situation and decide it that way.”