Liberty suffers 49-28 playoff defeat to Sherwood
Sometimes you just get beat.
Liberty exceeded expectations this year. In just their second season at the 6A level, the Falcons finished 7-2, tied for second in the tough Metro League, and qualified for and hosted a state playoff game versus Sherwood. But that's where the fairy tale ended.
The Falcons fell to the Bowmen 49-28 Friday, Nov. 3 on a cold, clear night at Liberty High School. In a game littered with offensive fireworks, Sherwood made a couple more plays, got a couple more stops, and pulled away from Liberty at the start of the fourth quarter, abruptly ending the Falcons year.
"They're a good team," said Liberty head coach Eric Mahlum. "They outplayed us tonight, but our kids competed and kept fighting all the way. We just didn't get it done."
Neither team punted in the first-half, both using a nice combination of inside and outside running, coupled with a timely throw to keep the defense honest. Sherwood scored on runs of one, four, and 28 yards, with a 40-yard passing touchdown mixed-in, while Liberty answered with two scores from running back Aidan Maloney and a 21-yard scoring scamper from quarterback Brad Norman.
"Our offensive coordinator told me before the game that he thought this was going to be a shootout, and he was right," said Sherwood head coach Greg Lawrence. "They're very good offensively. That quarterback and number 17 (Maloney) are a couple of studs."
Sherwood took the opening kick and drove immediately down the field to take an early 7-0 lead. And after the Bowmen stopped the Falcons on a fourth-and-1 play on their ensuing possession, quickly scored again on a 40-yard pass to Zach Jenkins, and it was 14-0 and a rout appeared to be on. But Liberty answered with a 7-play, 69-yard drive capped by a Maloney 25-yard touchdown run, cutting the lead to 14-7 and breathing life back into the comatose Falcon crowd.
However, the Bowmen answered that possession with a long drive of their own, going 73 yards in 15 plays and using nearly seven minutes to again take a two score lead at 21-7. The drive was particularly frustrating for the Liberty defense, due to Sherwood converting three third down and one fourth down conversion en route to their third TD of the night.
"We were just trying to read their keys, but they threw it over the top of us a couple times and that put us on our heels," said Liberty standout linebacker Yousef Koborsi. "We just couldn't get that stop when we needed it."
Yet, nor could Sherwood.
Liberty responded with a four-play drive that started with a Maloney 67-yard run and ended with Norman gutting the Bowmen defense on a quarterback keeper that again pulled the home team within seven. The score was one of four in a span of just under six minutes and sent the teams to the locker room with Sherwood leading 28-21.
The third quarter was more of the same, with both teams scoring on their first possessions. Liberty tied the game 28-28 when they went 80 yards in three minutes, finishing when Maloney went 15 yards around the right end for an easy Falcon score. But Sherwood regained the lead three minutes later when Jenkins scored his second touchdown of the night on a four-yard run up the middle to put the visitors up 35-28.
But the Bowmen got a rare stop on Liberty's next possession, then drove 83 yards in just six plays to take a 42-28 lead just eight seconds into the fourth and final quarter.
"We told the defense at halftime that we needed a stop from them," said Lawrence. "And we got it."
Then they got another one.
Trailing by two scores, Liberty quickly drove into Sherwood territory, but on second-and-10 from the Bowmen 45-yardline, Norman dropped to pass and threw a quick slant that was tipped at the line, fluttered into the defensive backfield and was intercepted by senior linebacker Rustin Williams. Sherwood took little time to capitalize on the turnover, scoring on a 3-yard Ben Baxter run to make it 49-28, ending the game and sending the Bowmen to next week's second round.
"Our big thing was we really wanted to finish a game and not make a big mistake that would cost us," said Lawrence. "A lot of our games this year have been that way, and it was nice to play a clean one and to do it when it mattered most."
The coach went on to communicate a high level of respect for Liberty and their coaching staff, and hoped this game would be the beginning of a healthy rivalry between the two teams that'll be competing in the new Pacific Conference together next season.
"I want this league next year to be a competitive league," Lawrence said. "I have a ton of respect for Eric (Mahlum) and appreciate what he's done with his team."
And Mahlum appreciated what his team has done for him, as well as themselves and their teammates.
"Our kids busted their rears and had a great year," said Mahlum. "You don't want to end this way, but I love the way these guys played and competed and no one expected them to be here at the beginning of the year. You can't help but respect that."
"I'm just so proud of how my brothers and I worked so hard this year, and everyone just showed perseverance throughout," said the Liberty linebacker. "This is just the best coaching staff ever and they've helped us out so much throughout the year."
So where does Liberty go from here?
"I told the team the reason we're here is because of the seniors and their hard work and leadership," said Mahlum. "And not just this year but all four of their years. We always tell them that they're playing for very Falcon that played before them."
And like the coaches, I'm sure those players are proud of this team as well.