Late TD keeps Hawks undefeated
Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune
Liberty linebackers Rylan Howe (34) and Kaleb Roth (15) converge on an Escalon ball carrier during Friday’s victory over the Cougars.
The Liberty Hawks football team remained undefeated by making a fourth quarter touchdown hold up in a 33-27 victory over the Escalon Cougars.
Liberty quarterback Greyson Hoelzel scored the first and last touchdown of the game, leading the Hawks to a 3-0 record after a win in their home opener. Hoelzel scored with 5:45 left in the game and Charles Smith intercepted Escalon with 2:05 left and the Hawks ran out the clock.
“It feels really good to get the win,” said running back/linebacker Kaleb Roth. “Wins are hard to come by. This was especially difficult. Being down at halftime is never fun. This will give us a lot of confidence against teams that are really skilled.”
“I’m proud of the team how they responded to adversity,” Liberty head coach Mike Nolte said. “That’s something we’ve talked about a lot this year. Things are going to happen in a football game. How you respond to them is everything. We talked about it a lot this week. Coming together as a family, when you don’t want to let each other down, makes you play harder. There are a lot of things that happen that you can’t control. All we can control is how we react to certain situations. We reacted very well tonight to a lot of different situations. The game had a lot of everything. Reacting to that stuff was something I was proud of.”
For the second time this season and just the third time in school history, the Hawks rushed for more than 500 yards. After setting the school record with 573 in the season opener against Firebaugh, the Hawks rushed for 502 yards against the Cougars.
Kaleb Roth led the Hawks with 178 yards rushing and scored two touchdowns while averaging 8.9 yards per rush. Roth’s brother, Wyatt, rushed for 160 yards, including a long of 72 yards. He had three rushes of 20 yards or more and averaged 11.4 yards per rush. Hoelzel gained 76 yards on the ground and Rylan Howe added 72 yards and a touchdown while Liberty averaged 8.7 yards per carry.
“The Roth brothers are strong runners and are hard to bring down,” Nolte said. “The line played good tonight. Those guys have to get into space to get their momentum going forward first. That’s a lot to do with the big boys up front. I think a lot of credit goes to the big boys up front to get them started. When they get down the field a little, their ability takes over.”
Roth led the defense with 15 tackles. Colton Cardoza had 10 while Howe, Nick Hayes and Tahner Green each had nine tackles. While the Hawks averaged 9.2 yards per play, the Liberty defense held Escalon to 5.9 yards per play and just seven second half points.
“Coach (Jim) Santa Cruz does a very good job of getting the kids in position to be successful,” Nolte said. “When a team is being successful against you on offense, you have to do things. You can’t do the same things. Adjustments were necessary. I’m happy that I have the staff to see those kinds of things to make the adjustments. The kids really respond to them. We have smart kids and have kids that respond to how they’re being coached.”
For the third game in a row, the Hawks scored on their opening possession. After forcing Escalon to punt, the Hawks took over at their own 21.
On the first play, Wyatt Roth went around the left side for a 38-yard gain. Kaleb Roth gained 13 to the right to the 28-yard line. Two plays later, Hoelzel kept the ball on an option keeper and scored from 28 yards out for the game’s first touchdown with 8:50 left in the first quarter. Bradley Moon’s extra point gave the Hawks a 7-0 lead.
Escalon converted a third down and a fourth down on its next drive, but turned the ball over on downs.
Both teams traded punts and Escalon took advantage of good field position from the Hawks’ 49-yard line. Three plays later, Escalon ran up the middle for a 36-yard touchdown run by Elliot Mello. The extra point tied the game with 10 minutes left in the first half.
However, the Hawks took just 1:26 to answer. On the third play of the drive, Roth carried up the middle, and then went down the left sideline. He broke a tackle while losing his shoe at the 25-yard line and was finally tackled at the two-yard line. Howe carried into the end zone for the touchdown. The point after was blocked after a bad snap for a 13-7 Liberty lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Escalon took back the momentum. Kaden Christensen went right through the middle of the Liberty kickoff unit for a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the third kick return touchdown against the Hawks this season. Escalon’s extra point gave them a 14-13 lead.
The Hawks were forced to punt on their next drive. Escalon then went on a nine-play drive to score on a Christensen five-yard touchdown run with 2:58 left in the first half.
The Hawks lost a questionable fumble on their next drive, but got the ball back after a punt, but time ran out at the end of the first half with the Cougars leading the Hawks 20-13.
After an impassioned halftime speech from Kaleb Roth, the Hawks opened the second half with another touchdown.
“That was a battle,” Roth said. “It was scary at some points. We’re a team that doesn’t stop fighting. Our team respects one another. When someone says what has to be said, they respond well."
Wyatt Roth opened the second half finding room behind Nick Hayes and got a downfield block from Bradley Moon for a 72-yard gain to the Escalon two-yard line. Two plays later, Kaleb Roth scored from a yard out. Moon’s extra point was blocked again and Liberty trailed 20-19 just 56 seconds into the second half.
After a trade in punts, Escalon didn’t take too long to extend its lead. Hugo Alcala took the ball round the left side and broke tackles on his way for a 67-yard touchdown for a 27-19 lead with 6:35 left in the third quarter.
The Hawks responded with their two longest drives of the game. Hoelzel opened the drive with a 23-yard run, but a bad snap led to an 18-yard loss.
Liberty faced a third-and-23 and Hoelzel was sacked. Escalon was hit with a horse collar 15-yard penalty and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was added. Howe gained three on third-and-2 for the first down.
On third-and-20, Wyatt Roth gained 21-yards to the 25-yard line. Howe gained seven and Green carried for 16 to the two-yard line. Kaleb Roth scored on the next play for the touchdown. Hoelzel’s conversion run was deemed short and Liberty trailed 27-25 with 1:26 left in the third quarter.
After two first downs from Escalon, the Liberty defense stiffened with help from Escalon. The Cougars drove to the Liberty 17-yard line and Alcala gained 13 inside the five-yard line. However, Escalon was called for a holding penalty and then hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to bring up second-and-25.
Two passes by Steven Grossi went incomplete and the Cougars punted.
The Hawks started the next drive at their own 11-yard line. Wyatt Roth gained eight for a first down and Kaleb Roth carried for 19 yards. From midfield, Howe carried up the middle for 27 yards. Howe carried two plays later for a first down at the 12-yard line.
On third-and-4 from the six, Hoelzel kept the ball on a read option and beat the cougars to the right pylon for the go-ahead touchdown.
Hoelzel found tight end Cardoza in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion for a 33-27 lead with 5:45 left in the game.
The Cougars converted two third downs, including one on a penalty to move inside the Liberty 30. On third-and-6, Grossi overthrew his receiver and Smith made the diving catch for the interception. Kaleb Roth gained 17 yards on third-and-four and Escalon was called for a face mask penalty to move the Hawks to the 47 with 54 seconds left in the game. The Hawks ran out the clock for their third win of the season.
Liberty plays at Fowler on Friday to continue non-conference play.