After losing its first three games of the season, the Liberty Hawks football team won its next six games and clinched at least a share of the North Sequoia League championship with one game left to play.
The Hawks faced
No. 2 ranked and undefeated Chowchilla in the final game of the regular season Friday night, but a key turnover led to a end zone fumble recovery and turn a seven-point game into four straight touchdowns and a 42-7 lead. Liberty scored two late touchdowns for a 42-21 Chowchilla victory. The Redskins, Hawks and Washington Union-Easton all finished the NSL season with a 3-1 record and were co-champions.
“It was a good game until it wasn’t,” head coach Mike Nolte said. “We kind of gave it away.”
The Hawks got a 153-yard rushing game from Kaleb Roth to highlight the offense that was limited to 241 yards.
Meanwhile, Chowchilla gained 304 yards and scored four offensive touchdowns.
Now, the Hawks will focus on the Div. IV playoffs. They earned the No. 6 seed on Saturday and will host No. 11 Madera South on Thursday at 7 p.m. The game was moved from Friday to Thursday because of the Veterans Day holiday. However, the winner of Thursday’s game earns a rematch with Chowchilla on Nov. 18.
“We started putting Chowchilla behind us Friday night after the game,” Nolte said. “That part of the season is over. Everybody is 0-0. It’s win and move on and lose and go home. If we can’t get focused on the playoffs, maybe we don’t be long there.”
The Hawks and Stallions have been regular season foes for the past six years, but didn’t play each other this season. The Hawks’ coaching staff is familiar with the Madera South Stallions, especially quarterback Jonah Johnson.
“We’ll be as ready as we can be for them,” Nolte said. “They’ve played some very good teams. They are much better than their record shows. It’s something we just have to deal with. As far as preparation and scheme, it’s a little easier from a coach’s standpoint. The kids are taking it week by week and it’s a new team each week. This game is going to be different than it was last week. The kids have to adjust from last week.”
The game started out on a positive note for the Hawks, forcing the Redskins to punt on their first possession. However, Chowchilla Ronnie Reyes blitzed through and forced a Liberty fumble on its first play of the game. Chowchilla’s Gabriel Sanchez recovered and returned the ball 39 yards into the end zone for a touchdown.
After a Liberty three-and-out, the Redskins drove down the field on nine plays for 39 yards for a 14-0 lead with 1:25 left on the clock.
Then, the Hawks went on an epic drive lasting 19 plays for 73-yards. The drive began with more than a minute left in the first quarter and didn’t end until Markie Brandt scored from a yard out with 4:13 left in the first half, about a nine minute drive.
On the drive, Liberty overcame three third downs and a fourth down. Brandt carried for seven on third-and-one; Roth ran for six on third-and-five; Brandt gained nine on third-and-five, Brandt carried for six on fourth-and-sixth; and Wyatt Roth gained four on third-and-four to lead to Brandt’s seventh touchdown of the season.
“I thought we overcame the first turnover a little bit,” Nolte said. “It was a little bit deflating. We were able to deal with that. The punt was the killer.”
The Hawks get an interception from Wyatt Johnson and returned it to the Chowchilla 19-yard line. However, Brandt threw an interception on fourth down.
The Redskins went to the air to get into scoring position before the half. Chowchilla quarterback Cody Woolsey hit favorite target Bernardo Bustillos three times on the drive, including a 29-yarder to get into Liberty territory. However, the drive faltered and Chowchilla missed a 29-yard field goal before the end of the half.
Liberty punted on its first possession of the second half and the Hawks forced a Chowchilla punt.
Asa Shields’ punt forced Johnson to retreat while calling for a fair catch. The ball bounced off Johnson’s chest and landed on the goal line. Johnson jumped on the ball and seemed to have the recovery as the official blew the whistle as two Chowchilla players jumped on the ball. After a lengthy conversation, the officials ruled that Chowchilla recovered the muffed punt in the end zone to turn a seven-point game into a rout.
Liberty turned the ball over on downs on a fake punt and Chowchilla scored on a long touchdown run for a 28-7 lead with 2:57 left in the third quarter.
After a Brandt interception, Chowchilla faced a third-and-19. Woolsey pitched the ball off to Carlos Iniguez off an option and Iniguez eluded two tacklers in the open field to score on a 37-yard run 16 seconds into the fourth quarter for a 35-7 lead.
The Hawks drove to the 11-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs.
Leading by 28 with about six minutes left in the game, Chowchilla went for the jugular and Woolsey hit Bustillos with a 61-yard catch-and-run for a 42-7 lead with 5:36 left in the game.
The Hawks didn’t go down quietly. Kaleb Roth exploited the middle of the Chowchilla defense for a 65-yard touchdown run.
After a Chowchilla three-and-out, Wyatt Roth gained 25-yards to open the next drive. Kaleb Roth followed with a 24-yard run and closed the scoring with a 19-yard run for a
41-21 Chowchilla lead with nine seconds left in the game.