Despite losing state final, future looks bright for Olentangy Liberty

Joey Tallarico (15) and Austin Deep work together in overpowering an opponent. Photo courtesy of Olentangy Liberty

Olentangy Liberty High School boys soccer coach Rick Collins surveyed the pitch at Columbus Crew Stadium and saw a lot of players standing dejectedly after the Patriots lost to Cleveland St. Ignatius 2-1 in the Division I state championship game on Nov. 8 at Columbus Crew Stadium.

Then one by one, the light bulb went off on what Liberty had accomplished: a fourth consecutive appearance in the state tournament.

“(After the game) the boys were disappointed. Some were crying,” said Collins, whose team finished 19-2-2 overall. “During the medal ceremony, guys were getting together and putting their arms around each other. It wasn’t long before they started smiling.”

“Getting to the state semifinals all four years was awesome,” senior forward Donny Deep said. “When we realized what we had done, we were pretty proud of ourselves.”

The four consecutive trips to the state tournament have put the Patriots in some rare air among Columbus-area teams. Worthington Christian (which made nine consecutive trips to the Division III state tournament from 2005-13) and St. Charles (five successive AAA state tournament appearances from 1981-85) are the only Columbus teams to make more sequential appearances than Liberty.

“Collins has built what you have to consider the premier program in the city right now,” Worthington Kilbourne coach Jon Sprunger said.

“I wouldn’t call us a dynasty yet but we’re definitely heading in the right direction,” Liberty senior defender Ben Hagman said.




Being hired as the Patriots coach in 2011 was the equivalent of Collins finding an oil field in his backyard. Liberty seemed to be on the cusp of becoming a powerhouse. Under former coach Josh Diehl, the Patriots lost in three consecutive district finals by a total of three goals from 2008-10.

“I was very fortunate to come in after Josh,” Collins said. “I didn’t have to do a whole lot of clean-up work.

“A lot of programs have an expectation of mediocrity. I haven’t had that with the Liberty kids. They know what it takes and they want to succeed.”

It could’ve been easy to dismiss Liberty’s 2011 run to the state final as a fluke. The Patriots were a fourth seed in the Central district, but top-seed Dublin Scioto, second-seeded Gahanna and third-seed Upper Arlington were all knocked out early. After beating Beavercreek 2-1 (14-13 in penalty kicks) in a state semifinal, Liberty lost to St. Ignatius 4-2 in the state final.

That team’s voyage made a huge impact on Hagman.

“I looked up to that team,” Hagman said. “(Although we weren’t on varsity that season) we were at every game. I remember saying to all of the other freshmen ‘We have to get that done our senior year.’”

Hagman’s wait turned out to be a lot shorter than he expected.




With seven seniors returning, Liberty appeared to be, on paper at least, the team to beat in 2012. However there’s a difference between paper and reality.

Since 2000, six teams from Columbus have won Division I boys titles.

Only three of those teams, Thomas Worthington (the 2001 champion and the 2002 runner-up), Westerville North (the 2003 champion and the 2004 runner-up) and Liberty have made return trips to the state tournament during that time frame.

“There are no guarantees,” said Sprunger, an assistant coach on Kilbourne’s 2000 state championship team. “There have been years where we’ve done very well and I thought they’re going to be even better the next season because we have all these players coming back. Sometimes it’s just not there.”


In 2012, everything was there for the Patriots, who defeated Sylvania Southview 2-0 to win the state title. Liberty went 22-1 overall, won its three district games by a combined score 20-2 and only surrendered four goals in its seven game tournament run.

According to Deep, the 2012 team set the bar for every team that followed it.

“At that time I don’t think we realized how talented and how connected that team was,” the Central District’s Player of the Year said. “Being able to practice and play with them is something I’ll never forget.”

“(Winning the state title) was such a sense of completion,” Collins added.

“And then came this feeling of ‘Now it’s over.’ A few days afterward, I started thinking ‘How in the world am I going to replace these kids?’”




The 2013 team had more question marks than answers for Collins. Liberty lost eight seniors from the 2012 team, seven of which went on to play in college.


However, Liberty finished 17-3-1 after losing to eventual state champion Mason 2-1 in a state semifinal. The run taught Collins the Patriots had a certain staying power.

All four of Liberty’s state tournament teams have had similar traits. First off, they were competitive with each other. This year, Liberty had 84 boys compete for the 61 slots on the freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams.

“Once you get on the team, playing time is hard to get,” Collins said. “There’s a constant push from players behind you. You can’t get complacent.”

Within that competitiveness was a sense of brotherhood. Off the field, the players are constantly doing things together to unify the team. Every Sunday, they met at a player’s house from a team dinner and had movie nights before key games.

“The team bonding stuff made the atmosphere amazing,” Deep said. “We watched Rocky IV the night before the state championship. We tried to picture St. Ignatius as Ivan Drago and us as Rocky.

“The classes ahead of us gave us a great starting point. We’ve grown so close and have so much chemistry on the field.”

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