Liberty fullback Christian Baker shakes off a tackler during a run Friday night. Baker ran for 188 yards and three touchdowns in the loss to Mendota. (Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune)
Trailing by seven in the fourth quarter, the Liberty Hawks had three chances to score a game-tying touchdown, but came away empty in a 26-19 loss to the Mendota Aztecs.
The Hawks dropped their second straight game to open the season, despite having chances to tie the score.
“I feel like we knew going in, it would be a tough football game,” head coach Mike Nolte said. “I hoped we would have recovered from last week enough to give ourselves a chance to win. I was really proud of our guys about the way they played. Mendota has some good players. Their quarterback is a three-year starter. He put that ball right where he needed to put it before the half. That was a killer for us, especially at the end of the half. Our kids kept fighting and put ourselves in position to have a chance.
Keying the Liberty offense was Christian Baker, who had a career night. He rushed for a career high 188 yards on 22 carries, while averaging 8.6 yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns to give him six on the season.
“It’s something you expect from your seniors,” Nolte said. “Christian was an impact player last year and knew he was going to be an impact player this year. He’s one of those guys you can count on to step up every game. The guys up front did a good job for him. We have to have more of that. Hopefully, he can string more games in a row and more guys can, too.”
Baker’s rushing total was the seventh-best total in school history and he now has 270 yards in two games.
“We have to be able to chunk together yards and hope for a big play every now and then,” Nolte said. “We have to be able to sustain drives and not make mistakes.”
The Liberty defense did well, at times. Although the defense gave up 329 yards to Mendota, Liberty forced four punts and sacked quarterback Junior Cardenas four times.
The Hawks got on the scoreboard before many fans settled into their seats.
On the opening kickoff, Mendota misplayed the ball and Corey Hiatt recovered at the Mendota 13-yard line for the Hawks.
Baker and Caleb Roth carried to the four-yard line and Baker finished the drive with a four-yard run for a 6-0 lead just 1:27 into the game.
However, two straight illegal procedure penalties moved the point after to the 20-yard line and Michael Hammon missed to the left.
Mendota got its initial first down on a pass interference penalty. Cardenas then hit Julian Cardenas for a 36-yard gain to the Liberty 19. However, Ethan Clark stuffed Erick Segura for a loss of six and three straight incomplete passes turned the ball over on downs.
After a Liberty punt, Mendota took over at their own 37 and Cardenas completed the eight-play, 63-yard drive with a touchdown pass to Fabian Jasso to tie the game. The extra point gave the Aztecs a 7-6 lead with 3:20 left in the first quarter.
The Hawks got a Markie Brandt eight-yard run on third down for a first down and Roth carried to the Mendota 33 for a 16-yard gain. However, Brandt was intercepted two plays later.
After a trade in possessions, the Aztecs moved to the Liberty 16-yard line. Tahner Green forced Cardenas to scramble and Cardenas ran into the waiting arms of Brett Cazares and Nick Hayes for a sack and a loss of 10-yards. Brandt then broke through and sacked Cardenas for a 13-yard loss and Mendota punted on fourth-and-31.
Brandt and Colton Ferreira rushed for a first down and Baker carried to the 32-yard line.
On the next play, Baker was bumped into a huge hole at the line, broke a tackle at the line and ran by the rest of the Mendota defense for a 68-yard touchdown run for a 12-7 lead with 3:20 left in the first half.
Mendota methodically drove down the field and milked the clock to perfection. Cardenas completed for four yards on third-and-one and then got another first down reception. On third-and-10 from the Liberty 45, Cardenas hit Julian Cardenas for 15 yards. Segura carried for 22 yards. Cardenas then found Jasso in the end zone for a touchdown with two seconds left in the half to give the Aztecs a 13-12 lead at the break.
Mendota opened the second half with a 14-play, 78-yard drive to score another touchdown. The key play was a 31-yard reception by Segura on second-and-23.
Brandt gave Liberty a first down with a 19-yard run. Baker carried for seven and nine yards for another first down inside Mendota territory. However, the Hawks were stopped and threw incomplete from the Mendota 24 on fourth down.
The Hawks forced a punt and the offense took over at the Mendota 48. Baker carried for 12-yards and a first down. On second-and-18, Roth carried for 13. However, on third down Brandt threw incomplete, but the Aztecs were flagged for roughing the passer and the penalty gave the Hawks a first down at the 17-yard line.
Two Baker carries moved the ball to the six-yard line. Two plays later, Baker scored from three yards out. Michael Hamman’s extra point tied the game at 19 with 8:35 left in the fourth.
The Hawks defense, led by Baker and Roth forced a Mendota punt and the offense took over at its own 29.
Baker gained five on first down and Brandt was tackled for no gain. After a false start penalty, Brandt scrambled for a one-yard gain. He threw incomplete on third down and the Hawks were forced to punt.
Unfortunately, it took the Aztecs just two plays to score the go-ahead touchdown. Cardenas scrambled and found Jasso for a 28-yard gain. Segura completed the drive by running around the Liberty defense for a 34-yard touchdown run for a 26-19 lead with 3:18 left in the game.
Liberty went backwards on its next drive. Brandt was sacked for a 10-yard loss. He was sacked and fumbled for a 13-yard loss while Hayes fell on the ball for the Hawks.
On third-and-33, Brandt hit new tight end Hayes for 12 yards, but Brandt was sacked on fourth down to give Mendota the ball seven yards away from the end zone.
“We had a little too far to go,” Nolte said. “We have to figure out where the protection is breaking down and try to fix it. I know they were bringing in a lot of people in a small area. They bring more than you have to block, it’s bad news. We have to try get our quarterback some time and figure out a way to get it out of his hands faster.”
Two plays later, though, Cardenas dropped the ball and Liberty’s Wyatt Johnson recovered and carried the ball to the 26-yard line.
In a last gasp to score a game-tying touchdown, Brandt threw incomplete on first down. After a delay of game penalty, Greyson Hoelzel threw incomplete on a halfback pass play. Brandt then hit Johnson for 14-yards and found Hoelzel for 10 yards and a first down.
Brandt hit Hoelzel for a 13-yard gain to the Mendota 42. On the final play of the game, Hoelzel went behind center to send a ball down the right sideline for Brandt. However, the ball was slightly underthrown and Segura intercepted for the Aztecs to secure the victory.
Liberty next travels 100 miles north to Escalon to face the Cougars of the Trans-Valley League in the Sac-Joaquin Section. Escalon, who is 1-1 this season, was 5-5 last year.