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Liberty punctuated its 2021 spring season the way it always talked about.
Since head coach Matt Hoefs took over the program in the summer, nothing was normal. Nothing was what anyone assumed or thought it would be. The pandemic rolled on, sending the world into virtual meetings and pushing the season back.
Yet, despite all of the adversity thrown the Lions’ way, they fought. They scratched and clawed. They banded together and never let the world take control of it.
All of that came to fruition one last time, as the Liberty Lions (4-1) pulled out a thrilling 30-21 victory over their rivals, the No. 22 Heritage Patriots (4-2), in the Brentwood Bowl to continue their winning streak over Heritage that dates back to 2017.
It was the second consecutive close win for Liberty, who won the Bell Game over Freedom, 21-14, the week prior.
“Kind of expect the unexpected with this season,” said Liberty head coach Matt Hoefs. “These guys are gamers, and I think they’ve proved that the last two weeks. We always kept the game tight. It seems like we never let it slip away, so I’m just proud of this group, whether it be the seniors that stepped up, the sophomore quarterback making big plays. This is truly what we’ve talked about with a team effort. This is the definition of it.”
Early on, adversity was thrown Liberty’s way again, yet the way it responded was indicative of its entire program.
Four penalties on the first four plays led Liberty to punt the ball to Heritage, who answered with a long scoring drive of its own, as sophomore running back Devon Rivers scored on a 13-yard run – his 11th carry of the opening possession – to put the Patriots ahead 7-0 with 50.3 seconds left in the first quarter.
However, that would be the only time Heritage led in the ballgame.
Sophomore quarterback Nate Bell found senior Auki-Kapuha Flores – a connection that was heard all evening – on a beautiful 27-yard play that tied the game at 7-7, capping a possession where Bell was a perfect 5-of-5 for 69 yards.
“It was just one of those where it’s like the first drive of the first quarter. They had a great first drive. It didn’t go our way, but we didn’t panic as a staff,” Hoefs said. “The players didn’t panic. They settled in. They made plays. As soon as we responded with that touchdown, you could just see it in their eyes that, ‘Hey, we’re not going to lose this game. We’ve got this.’”
The two teams would trade scores for a little while longer, yet there was Liberty, though, behind its all-around team effort and the youngster Bell leading the way with his dual-threat capabilities to eke it out.
Bell’s third touchdown was a 3-yard run that gave Liberty the lead for good at 20-14 with 5:47 remaining in the third. Sophomore kicker Tashi Dorje later hit a 42-yard field goal with 8:40 remaining in the game to extend the advantage to 23-14.
Heritage would get within two points on senior quarterback Asher Haynes’ 12-yard pass to Jayden Ennis, but Liberty made a couple of big plays to seal the deal.
With 1:54 remaining and one yard to go on fourth down, Liberty opted to go for it from its own 28-yard line, and senior Jaylin Thompson ran two yards for the first down.
“I figure if we got one yard and sealed the deal, we’ve got to take the chance, not give them the momentum,” Hoefs said. “They proved that they can move the ball when necessary, so we just wanted to take it out of their hands, and I thought with our three running backs in the backfield that we could get it.”
Bell came back with one of the best plays just moments later, too.
On a busted play, Bell took the ball, eluded defenders, ran to the left sideline and then evaded more defenders en route to a 77-yard touchdown run and a 30-21 lead, securing the rivalry win while he and his teammates broke out into celebration.
“It was definitely a broken play,” Bell said. “We were supposed to go to the right, but our two running backs ran into each other, so I just tried to make the most out of it and ended up in the end zone.”
Bell was a star all game, showcasing the growth he has undergone in his first year as Liberty’s starting quarterback.
Following a wildly efficient 29-of-34 (85.3%) outing for 368 yards last week versus Freedom, Bell did it all with both his arms and legs, going 13-of-19 for 167 yards and a touchdown, along with 148 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries, extending multiple plays and making incredible throws throughout.
In five games, Bell finished the season with 828 passing yards, six touchdowns and one interception, adding another 229 yards and six scores on the ground.
The craziest part: Hoefs said Bell hurt his throwing shoulder last week and didn’t throw all week.
“He was kind of one of those game-time decisions, like, ‘Can you go?’ He said, ‘Of course I can go.’ The adrenaline is running, and then on the first ball he throws a nice rip and the rest is history,” Hoefs said.
His connection with Flores was lethal as well, as he found Flores five times for 87 yards and a touchdown in Flores’ final high school game.
“We would go at early practice and we would just catch balls all day and even after practice, too,” Flores said. “I just had that connection with him.”
Both of Liberty’s running backs – Hill and Thompson – were dominant forces out of the backfield.
Hill finished with 81 yards on 12 carries, as the performance put him at 381 yards for the year. Thompson was right behind with 80 yards on 16 touchdowns, with the bruiser ending the campaign with 353 rushing yards.
They just do their thing on the line,” Flores said. “They just run the ball. They just break tackles because they’re different.”
And Liberty’s defense made multiple fourth down stops, made a couple of critical sacks late and forced a pair of turnovers – junior Dominic Bustos recovered a fumble and senior Biz Reifel intercepted a pass.
“We definitely just played as a team,” Bell said. “We made the halftime adjustments and we just did our job and got the win.”
Rivers led Heritage with 178 rushing yards. Rivers, who entered the contest as the No. 1 rusher in the North Coast Section and No. 6 in California, concludes the year with 914 rushing yards.
Heritage senior Tanner Hartwig paced the receiving corps with 45 yards, while fellow senior Jaden Price had 41 yards on four catches.
Each program says goodbye to senior classes who helped first-year head coaches establish their cultures during the unprecedented times, with Heritage’s seniors leading the Patriots to their first winning season since 2017 and Liberty’s seniors continuing the recent run of success by accomplishing a 4-1 record in a challenging Bay Valley Athletic League.
“That core group that’s still here, because throughout the pandemic we’ve been at this for over a year practicing, weeks off and at items they had voices in their ear saying, ‘You’re not going to play a season.’ But the same group kept coming out,” Hoefs said. “They’re just a tight-knit group that’s played together a long time, and they decided that if they got any opportunity, they were going to do it.
“They definitely helped the culture because I think a lot of focus I think from outsiders looking in was what we didn’t have instead of what we had and have. And I thought what we had was pretty good, so it’s just about believing in ourselves. I think almost all those seniors that played significantly played both ways and played a lot.”
Link to Photo Gallery
Passing: Asher Haynes: 15-22, 165 yards, 2 TD. Tanner Hartwig: 0-1.
Rushing: Devon Rivers: 29 carries, 178 yards, 2 TD. Asher Haynes: 4 carries, -2 yards.
Receiving: Tanner Hartwig: 4 catches, 45 yards. Jaden Price: 4 catches, 41 yards. Tommy Keithley: 2 catches, 31 yards, TD. Devon Rivers: 2 catches, 26 yards. Jayden Ennis: 1 catch, 12 yards, TD. Jeremiah Ruffin: 1 catch, 10 yards.
Passing: Nate Bell: 13-19, 167 yards, TD.
Rushing: Nate Bell: 15 carries, 148 yards, 3 TD. Deovion Hill: 12 carries, 81 yards. Jaylin Thompson: 16 carries, 80 yards.
Receiving: Auki-Kapuha Flores: 5 catches, 87 yards, TD. Biz Reifel: 4 catches, 41 yards. Leo Reichhold: 2 catches, 29 yards. Jaylin Thompson: 2 catches, 10 yards.
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