Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune
Liberty’s David Portnoff makes the tackle on Yosemite’s Nicholas Harper for a loss in Friday’s battle. Harper had the upper hand rushing for 240 yards and accounting for three touchdowns in a 40-28 victory.
The Liberty Hawks football team turned the ball over on three of its first four second half drives and the Yosemite-Oakhurst Badgers took advantage of three of them to record a 40-28 victory to open the North Sequoia League season for both teams.
“That’s been the theme in our three losses,” Liberty head coach Mike Nolte said. “We give the ball away and it makes it tough.”
The Hawks had two turnovers in each of their previous losses to Kennedy-Delano and Chavez-Delano. Yosemite turned three of Liberty’s turnovers into touchdowns and another resulted in a missed field goal to record its first victory over the Hawks since 2011.
Yosemite’s Nicholas Harper gauged the Hawks for 240 yards rushing. He scored two touchdowns, including a 45-yarder, on the ground and another in the air.
Despite Harper’s heroics, the Hawks still found themselves leading with five minutes to go and the ball, but Holden Eames picked off a Liberty trick play to give the Badgers the lead.
“I feel bad about the interception,” Nolte said. “It was probably something that we should have punted the ball away and gave them a longer field. I was trying to make something happen and they made a good play.”
Liberty still had a chance to take the lead, trailing by six, but fumbled on the ensuing kickoff and the Badgers scored with 43 seconds left for the 12-point victory.
“We will never stop fighting,” Nolte said. “I don’t care what the score is. We’re not going to stop fighting. That’s something I take pride in and won’t take anything less from my football team.”
Yosemite took the opening kickoff and drove 65 yards on nine plays to score a touchdown on a 34-yard pass play midway through the first quarter.
The Hawks battled right back. Quentin Stewart, who rushed for 140 yards, started the drive with a 17-yard first down run. Stewart gained nine more yards for another first down.
Two plays later, Tyler Miller found the open field behind blocks from David Portnoff and Brad Wallace for a 21-yard touchdown run to tie the game at seven after the first of four Steven Pennington’s point after kicks.
Yosemite responded with a 12-play, 75-yard drive. The Badgers drove to the seven yard line, but the Hawks forced a field goal attempt. The kick was blocked and Tyler Person returned it to the midfield for the Hawks.
However, Liberty went three-and-out and the Badgers took advantage. Highlighted by a 31-yard pass to Eames, Harper scored on a 45-yard touchdown run for a 13-7 lead after Nick Anselmo blocked the extra point with 8:53 left in the first half.
The Hawks then drove 80 yards on 11 plays to take a lead. Miller gained 11 on third-and-eight for a first down and Stewart broke tackles for a 20-yard gain to the one-yard line. Two plays later, Rylan Howe scored to give the Hawks a 14-13 lead.
The Badgers came back with a touchdown just 26 seconds later. After 34-yard kickoff return, Harper gained 50 yards to the six yard line and capped the drive with a six yard touchdown run for a 20-14 lead.
Liberty came right back with a Stewart 17-yard run to start the drive. Miller and Stewart had back-to-back seven-yard runs. Stewart broke two tackles on the way for a 20-yard touchdown run for a 20-13 lead with 1:56 left in the half.
Four plays into the second half, the Hawks fumbled and the Badgers recovered. A pass interference penalty in the end zone on third down gave Yosemite extra life and Harper scored from 10 yards out two plays later for a 26-21 lead.
On the fifth play of the next drive, after the Hawks moved inside the Yosemite 30-yard line, Liberty fumbled again and the Badgers recovered.
Yosemite drove inside the Liberty 30-yard line. Miller broke up a pass in the end zone and Stewart and Porter stopped Eames for a gain of two to force fourth down. The 43-yard field goal was short and Stewart picked up the loose ball. Stewart returned it to the 31-yard line.
Porter opened the drive with an 18-yard gain and Yosemite was hit with a 15-yard sideline penalty. Stewart then gained 31-yards to the Badgers’ six-yard line. Two plays later, Howe punched it in from the one for a 28-27 lead with 7:43 left in the game.
The Liberty defense, led by Dominic Oberti, Jon Franklin, Rylan Howe, Stewart and Portnoff forced a three-and-out.
The Hawks faced a third-and-13 and tried a trick play. After Porter handed the ball off to Miller going right, Miller pulled up to try to hit Porter on the left.
However, Eames read the play and picked off the pass. He returned it, untouched, 37 yards for a touchdown and a 33-28 lead after the two-point conversion was intercepted by Stewart with 4:21 left in the game.
On the ensuing kickoff, Liberty fumbled and the Badgers took over. They put the game away with a seven-play, 45-yard drive for a touchdown with 43 seconds left in the game for the 40-28 victory.