Liberty football reloads
Liberty was good last year. In fact, they had arguably their most successful year in school history, winning nine games and advancing to the state quarterfinals. But gone is Pacific Conference Offensive Player of the Year Brad Norman; dynamic all-league running back Aidan Maloney; and the entire group of the 2019 class that had much to do with the success of the last two years.
So what will head coach Eric Mahlum, his staff and the remaining players do differently in their absence? Absolutely nothing.
"I think these guys saw that the bar has been raised," Mahlum said. "I talked with them after last season and that first month afterward some of the guys were like, 'man, we lost Brad, we lost Aidan, how are we going to replace them?' I said, 'we've got Marquis, we've got Jaxson, we've got Cole,' and they were like, 'I guess you're right, coach.' It's time to plug guys in and go."
That attitude has been a long time coming. Like any program, it takes time to build a system that is in some ways self-sustaining, but beginning his 12th season at Liberty, Mahlum said he's beginning to see the fruits of his and his staff's labor in the way the kids prepare.
"It's nice because your goal is to build a program in which each class follows the class before them, but it takes work and it takes the kids to believe and see it happen," the coach said. "I think we've hit that point. The guys show up, they do what they're told, they believe in themselves and they recognize if you work hard and together, you can compete with anyone. I think we're at that point."
The Falcons didn't lose everyone from last year's team. They return some key contributors, including but not limited to Pacific Conference Defensive Player of the Year Marquis Brown; all-league running back/defensive back Cole Smith; standout receiver/defensive back Jaxson Lake; and much of an offensive line that Mahlum believes was the best in program history last year.
"Last year's line was the best I'd had," he said. "We return two starters and had another sophomore who started three games and knows what it's like. Our line should be as good as any, and really formidable."
Senior linebacker Kyle Perkins will run the defense for Liberty, and offensively — at least to start — Mahlum said the team will replace the departed Norman with two young quarterbacks who've both "earned" the opportunity to play.
Junior Xanden Unciano and sophomore Hiro Diamond have both proved themselves worthy throughout the summer and fall camp, and Mahlum said there's an important distinction between two capable players.
"Neither are Brad, but they don't have to be," Mahlum said. "They've been working their tails off and both are smart guys who've done a great job of picking up the offense. As any good coach knows, one will likely rise above the other, but I love the fact that we've got two guys who've earned the right to play, rather than not knowing who is better."
Mahlum believes the strength of his team lies in their consistency and smarts, while their weakness is simply a lack of game experience. That's not to say he questions their capabilities, but that until they see it manifest itself in varsity action, they won't truly know what they have in what they believe can be a very good team.
"We have some guys who we feel will be good once they get going, but they've got to get out there and get knocked down, make mistakes and realize that stuff will happen," he said. "I love watching guys get out there for the first time, and we tell them, 'you will make mistakes,' but that's how you learn."
Things won't be easy for the Falcons — their schedule is formidable to say the least. But Mahlum wouldn't have it any other way, citing fierce competition as a means of preparing his team for what he hopes will be a deep playoff run come the end of the year.
"There was a time when we sought out some lesser competition because we were building a program, but now we want to play a tough schedule because for them to believe they have to go play teams like that," Mahlum said. "We don't want to go into our league play with a false sense of security, and this ensures that won't happen."
Liberty opens the season hosting Sprague at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 6, at Liberty High School.
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