Hawks clinch title to remain undefeated
Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune
Liberty’s Caleb Sisco eludes Riverdale defenders during a long run in Friday’s victory over the Cowboys. Sisco rushed for 202 yards and three touchdowns in the win.
The Liberty Hawks football team was pushed by the Riverdale Cowboys, but the Hawks pushed back in a major way for a 56-21 victory on Senior Night at Liberty.
After the Cowboys returned their second kickoff for a touchdown, the Hawks closed the game with 21 fourth quarter points to clinch a share of the Northwest Sequoia Conference title in improve to 9-0 on the season.
“It’s big and it’s the first-ever conference championship — Northwest Sequoia Conference,” head coach Mike Nolte said. “We stretched the lead and they got a kickoff return. If you erase those two kickoff return, it’s not even close. That’s football. You have to play all three phases. They kept it close and were in it at halftime. Our kids woke up a little bit.”
The Hawks got an outstanding game from the rushing attack, led by Caleb Sisco’s 202 yards. Vince Oberti gained 143 yards and Brody Harlow added 83 yards. The Hawks rushed for 472 yards, the fifth highest total in school history and the most since 2017.
“The last two games, it was hard to judge if we were getting better,” Nolte said. “I never doubted the character of the kids. The natural think for the boys is to be a little overconfident. I’m proud of the way they handled themselves today. “
Without the two touchdowns, the Hawks would have run away from the cowboys. Liberty held Riverdale to 166 yards of total offense, including 11 yards on the ground. Liberty also recorded six quarterback sacks.
It took the Hawks nine plays to drive 60 yards for the first touchdown of the game. Oberti gained 20 yards to move the ball inside the 20-yard line. On the next play, Harlow went around the left side for the touchdown with 6:52 left in the first quarter. Harlow punctuated the run by running over a defender at the goal line for a 7-0 lead.
However, Riverdale returned the ensuing kickoff right up the middle for a 93-yard touchdown to tie the game at seven.
Liberty fumbled on the next offensive play, and Riverdale recovered. Keyed by a 25-yard gain, the Cowboys drove inside the 20-yard line. However, the Hawks forced the Cowboys into a hurried 33-yard field goal that was short.
The Hawks responded with an 80-yard drive that took just five plays. Cisco gained 32 yards on the first play. Mitchell Whaley added 14 yards on the next play. Three plays later, Harlow broke a tackle at the five and scored on a 27-yard touchdown run for a 14-7 lead.
The Cowboys got two first downs on the next drive, but turned the ball over on downs. Whaley, Max Nulick and Jared Nolte helped force the Cowboys to turn the ball over.
Whaley started the next drive with an 11-yard pass from Luke McFarland. Then, Sisco went round the left end and down the sideline for a 57-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter for a 21-7 lead.
Riverdale then went on a 15-play, 75-yard drive to score a touchdown with 22 seconds left in the half to cut Liberty’s lead to 21-14.
Oberti returned the second half kickoff 57 yards to the Riverdale 18-yard line. Head coach Nolte let Oberti finish the drive, and he did. Oberti got the hand off on the next play, went up the middle and scored for a 28-14 lead just 20 seconds into the second half.
After Riverdale went three-and-out, the Hawks added to their lead. Oberti gained 14 yards on the first play.
Three plays later, Sisco broke a tackle near the sideline, stayed inbounds and ran his way through the Riverdale defense for a 49-yard touchdown run for a 35-14 lead.
However, on the ensuing kickoff, Riverdale took the bouncing kick down the left sideline for an 80-yard return to cut the Liberty lead to 14.
After the Hawks had to punt, Riverdale got a 35-yard gain on the first play. However, the Cowboys mishandled the snap and Nulick came up with the fumble recovery.
Harlow helped start the drive with a 19-yard run. Sisco gained six on third-and-four to the eight. Three plays later, Whaley went up the middle for a two-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 43-21 lead.
The Cowboys used a pair of Liberty penalties for first downs. However, a sack by Hunter Lee and Nolte forced a fourth down punt.
McFarland threw deep down the sideline to a wide open Dolan Dilbeck. Dilbeck caught the pass and outran the defense for a 50-yard touchdown reception for a 29-21 lead.
After a 29-yard gain by the Cowboys, Oberti stopped Riverdale for a loss of three. Then, Nulick and Nolte combined for a 13-yard sack to force a punt.
The Hawks drove 82-yards on seven plays to sloe out the game. Harlow gained 20 yards on the second play. Whaley gained three on third-and-two. Oberti added a 12-yard gain. Then, Sisco scored around the left end for a 26-yard touchdown run with 42 seconds left in the game for the 56-21 victory.