For only the second time since joining the North Sequoia League, the Liberty Hawks football team has an NSL title.
With a 41-26 win Friday over Kerman, the Hawks won their sixth straight game and improved to 3-0 in the NSL with a showdown with Chowchilla this Friday to close out the regular season.
“The North Sequoia League is a tough football league,” Liberty head coach Mike Nolte said. “This year is no exception. Being no worse than co-champs is a huge accomplishment for this football team. It just speaks to the resiliency of the kids because some teams would have cashed it in after the first three losses. These kids stayed focused, kept pushing and moving forward. It’s definitely paid off. The kids have stepped up and played hard. We’re in a position that I hoped to be in at the beginning of the year.”
The Hawks had to overcome one of their biggest losses all season with the injury to running back/middle linebacker Christian Baker. Kaleb Roth got a majority of the carries and gained 153 yards and scored three touchdowns, averaging eight yards a carry. Nick Hayes helped out at linebacker and had three tackles.
“It’s terrible that Christian is going to be out for the year,” Nolte said. “Our kids felt a sense of responsibility to step up and fill the void that he leaves. He’s one of their brothers and that’s how these kids feel about each other. It was good to see kids step up and speaks to the closeness of our football team.”
The Hawks also got their first return for a touchdown this season when Wyatt Johnson returned a punt 39-yards for Liberty’s first score. Tahner Green returned the second half kickoff for a touchdown, but it was called back by a penalty.
“It’s deflating for a football team when you can make something happen on special team like that,” Nolte said. “That was big. We had the kickoff return to open the half, which would have been huge. Coming out of halftime, it’s important that you can establish yourself in the second half. You go in and make adjustments and think you figure it out. When you can go down and put it into the end zone to open the second half, it’s the same as a kick return, it’s demoralizing.”
The Hawks went into the locker room leading 21-0 and scored on the first drive of the second half for a 28-0 lead.
“It was huge to get that early lead,” Nolte said. “Their ability to strike quick on offense is there throughout the game because of the arm strength of their quarterback and their ability to go deep. It’s big to get up on that kind of team and control the game on offense.”
Two of the Lions’ four touchdowns came from 50 yards or more and all four touchdowns were pass plays of 20 yards or more.
Kerman abandoned the running game in the second half. The Lions didn’t run a called running play in the second half. Kerman quarterback Sean Chambers, who leads the Lions in rushing and passing, was limited to just 18 yards rushing. He threw for 329 yards, but took 46 attempts to get there (39 percent completion rate).
“The major focus was stopping their quarterback from running,” Nolte said. “That was the No. 1 goal this week. Our front four has played great. We had to move Nick Hayes back to linebacker to fill Baker’s void. We had a good little rotation on the line and the front four played like they should. We were able to contain their quarterback.”
The Lions began the game by going the wrong direction and was forced to punt on fourth-and-14. However, Johnson fumbled the punt and Kerman recovered. Chambers threw incomplete on fourth down. The Hawks took over and drove down the field, highlighted by a 20-yard run from Wyatt Roth. The Hawks faced a fourth-and-three from the five, but quarterback Markie Brandt threw incomplete.
The Hawks’ defense forced an ensuing punt from the 12. The Kerman punt was short and Johnson took it on a bounce at the 39-yard line. He found a hole and burst through untouched to the end zone for a 7-0 lead with two minutes left in the first quarter to atone for his earlier fumble.
The Liberty defense forced another three-and-out and the Hawks drove for their first score. Facing a third-and-three from the 30, Kaleb Roth got the ball off left tackle, found an opening and dove over a Kerman defender into the end zone for the touchdown with 9:58 left in the first half. Roth immediately got up and ran to the Liberty sideline to present Baker with the ball.
After a trade in possessions, the Lions took advantage of a pass interference penalty to drive inside Liberty territory. Chambers carried for eight on third-and-nine. However, Ethan Clark, Brett Cazares and Javier Lopez stuffed Chris Acosta on fourth down to turn the ball over.
The Hawks began to drive down the field with the running game. Wyatt Roth gained 10 for a first down. Kaleb Roth followed with 12 more. The Hawks faced a fourth-and-three and Brandt hit Green over the middle for a 17-yard gain to the 20-yard line.
Roth got the call and delivered with a 20-yard touchdown run with 1:21 left on the clock for a 21-0 lead.
Green returned the second half kickoff 70-yards into the end zone for an apparent touchdown, but a personal foul penalty brought the ball back. Then, Brandt scored on a 55-yard touchdown run, but an inadvertent whistle turned the run into a six-yard gain.
Roth then carried for 24 yards to the eight yard line. Brandt gained seven to the one and Roth finished the drive with his third touchdown of the game.
The Lions finally found the end zone on their first offensive play of the second half after a 64-yard kickoff return. Chambers hit Mason Layton, who made a one-handed reaching grab, for a 26-yard touchdown.
The Hawks defense and Kerman mistakes led to a fourth-and-48 for the Lions. A false start and a personal foul moved the Lions back to the 22-yard line. Then, Cazares broke through to get enough of Chambers for an 18-yard sack to bring up a punt from the four.
The Hawks faced a fourth-and-five on the ensuing drive. Brandt took the snap and started to roll to his right. He stopped and threw back to the left for a wide open Greyson Hoelzel. Hoelzel hauled in the pass in the open field and went into the end zone for a 34-6 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter.
The Lions then struck for a 51-yard catch-and-run to cut the lead to 21. The Hawks were forced to punt on their next drive. Three plays later, Chambers hits Charlie Castellanos for a 55-yard touchdown catch-and-run to cut Liberty’s lead to 35-20.
The Hawks came right back and marched down the field for their final score of the evening. Roth gained 11 for a first down. Brandt went for 12 on third down. Then Roth carried for 11 and 10 yards and Wyatt Roth finished the drive with a 13-yard touchdown run for a 41-20 lead.
The Lions used the pass to drive down the field. Chambers completed a 17-yard pass for a first down. After an 11 yard run, Chambers completed a 17-yard pass on fourth down. Three plays later, Chambers threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to cut Liberty’s lead to 15 with 5:19 left in the game.
The Lions got the ensuing onsides kick. Despite a sack by Green, Chambers completed an 18-yard pass on third down. After three incomplete passes, Chambers tried to go down field, but the ball went incomplete.
The Hawks took over and tried to run out the clock before punting with two minutes left in the game.
Johnson thwarted any more attempts at a comeback with a game-sealing leaping interception at the Liberty 18-yard line.