By Ted Waddell
LIBERTY October 2, 2007 It wasn’t a battle, it was a war.
The Highland Huskies came to Liberty expecting a good old fashioned battle on the gridiron, but they wound up in a war to hang on to their undefeated record so far this year. After a hard fought contest, Highland defeated Liberty, 35-32.
Highland (5-0, 2-0 Class B) opened up its offensive attack early in the first quarter of the Section IX Class B Division II game as Mikiah Downing connected with Zack Cunningham for a 78-yard touchdown pass. A two-point conversion by Cunningham put the Huskies up 8-0.
At 6:10 Liberty (3-2, 1-2 Class B) scored on a 1-yard run by Ryan VanLieu, but Trevor “the Tank” Tompkins came up short on a two-point conversion attempt.
After stopping the Huskies on fourth down, the Indians took over possession at 3:27. VanLieu had a 28-yard run and Tompkins then hammered it down to the Huskies 4-yard line. VanLieu took it across the goal line for a 2-yard TD.
In setting up for the PAT kick, Liberty was flagged for delay of the game. On the ensuing snap for a two-point conversion pass from Joseph Ruiz to Justin Mills, the ball just eluded Mills’ outstretched fingertips.
Early in the second quarter, Liberty’s defense nailed Cunningham for a loss back to the 10-yard line to briefly curtail what was a first-and-goal situation. On the next play, Trevor Tompkins swarmed all over the Huskies QB, breaking up a pass attempt to Dan Berta in the end zone.
Both teams exchanged penalty calls, Highland for offense holding, and then Liberty for pass interference.
But at 1:22, Cunningham scored for the Huskies. The PAT kick was good, and Liberty headed off to the locker room with a 25-15 lead.
At about the 10-minute mark in the third quarter, Highland’s Dan Hughes intercepted a Liberty pass, setting up a first down at the Indian 27-yard line.
Downing scored on a 1-yard run at 8:27, but on the play Liberty’s Brandon Tompkins was left writhing in pain with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. During the remainder of the game, the sophomore running back sat on a metal folding chair with his knee on ice, alternately crying in frustration that he wasn’t out on the field, and exhorting his teammates to give it their all.
In the closing minutes, as the Indians seemed poised for a last second victory, Brandon Tompkins hobbled out to what would be the final huddle of the game, to be with his team at the end.
After the game, he walked the line to congratulate the Huskies, supported on either side by Assistant Coach John Wilhelm and a teammate.
“If I had 10 Brandon’s I’d win a state title,” Liberty Coach Jim O’Connor said. “He’s just an everyday kind of guy, just the kind of kid you want to have to keep the program alive.”
After Downing’s TD, Highland attempted a two-point conversion pass, but it was intercepted by Trevor Tompkins.
At 11:55 in the fourth quarter, Downing connected with Tim Sweeney on a 6-yard touchdown pass. Cunningham’s PAT kick was good, and Highland led 28-25).
After the Indians were forced to punt, fortune turned their way briefly as with eight minutes left on the game clock, they recovered a fumble.
At 7:52, Ruiz competed a pass to Ivan Rivera for a 52-yard TD. Trevor Tompkins’ PAT kick put Liberty back ahead 32-28.
Moments later, Abi Rubio picked off a Huskies’ pass, giving the home team a first down at its own 12-yard line. However, Liberty fumbled at its own 29.
Highland then fumbled on its subsequent possession, but was able to recover the ball.
At 3:14, Downing hooked up in the end zone with a pass to Berta for a 5-yard TD. The PAT kick was good, and Highland was now back in the lead, 35-32.
With two minutes left in the game, Liberty’s Chris Lake, who was sidelined by a hand injury, knelt along the sidelines, silently praying to a St. Christopher’s medal.
But even with the hope of divine intervention, the clock ran out for the Indians, as the closest they got to the Huskies’ goal line was the 24-yard line before they ran out of downs in a last ditch effort to score.
Highland took over on downs, and Downing took a knee to end the game.
Liberty’s Ryan VanLieu rushed for 206 yards, Trevor Tompkins racked up 152 yards, and Ruiz was 3-for-10 for 68 yards, one TD and one interception.
Highland had a total of 373 yards on offense, including three TD passes by Downing.
“We had a lot at stake here today,” Highland Coach Carl Relyea said. “We were ranked ninth in the state, but these guys came out and gave us a war today.
“I’ll tell you what, number 21 [Trevor Tompkins] and number 34 [Ryan VanLieu] came to play, and they ran the ball hard,” Relyea added.
O’Connor said that while defeated, his players walked off the field with their heads held high.
“I though we played great,” he said. “Nobody thought we were going to beat ‘em, but we almost did. We gave ‘em a football game.
“The running of Ryan VanLieu and Trevor Tompkins was just impeccable, you couldn’t ask for better, and the defense played well the whole game. In my mind, my team won the game, we got the better of them on sheer will and determination,” O’Connor added.