Liberty rises to the occasion
Story by Eli Ruiz
Liberty knew Friday’s Section IX Class C semifinal game against Millbrook would be different than a few years ago. That’s when a bigger tougher Millbrook squad manhandled the Indians in a sectional playoff game 54-13.
With the memory of that big loss seemingly fresh on Liberty coach John Wilhelm’s mind, he said, “I think we match-up with them much better physically this time around. A few years ago when we had them in the playoffs we really didn’t [match-up physically] and they beat us pretty bad. I think it’s a different story now.”
Different story indeed, as the Liberty turned the tables on Millbrook, proving too physical, too talented and too hungry for Millbrook this year, powering past the Blazers 35-18 at Kingston’s Dietz Stadium. With the victory, Liberty (7-2) will now face James I. O’Neill (7-2), decisive winners over Sullivan West in the other Class C semifinal, Saturday at Middletown’s Faller Field (3 p.m.)
“It feels good, really good,” said Wilhelm. “We went to the championship game my first year [as coach] four years ago and it just feels good to get back. The kids really banded together this year and we’ve played really well the second half of the season. So things are coming together.”
When Wilhelm said before the game that the outcome could come down to the onsides kickoffs that both teams employ on virtually all kickoffs, he was on the mark.
Liberty opened the game in Blazer territory at the 44-yardline after recovering Millbrook’s failed onsides attempt. The Indians would quickly capitalize on the great field position Ryan Henry rumbled all the way to the Blazer six on the first offensive play, setting up a diving score by quarterback Quinn Jackson on fourth and goal from three plays later. The extra point by Henry gave the Indians an early 7-0 lead barely two minutes into the game.
Liberty’s Atwoun Ackerley recovered the ensuing onsides kick, and the Indians were back in business from the Blazer 36. Six plays later, Jackson connected with Henry on a screen pass and an 11-yard score. The PAT by Henry the second of his five the day gave Liberty a 14-0 lead without the Blazer offense taking the field.
Millbrook’s first offensive series would open at their 35-yard line, but a short pick-up by running back Henry Cardinal followed by a personal foul penalty against Liberty which was plagued by penalties throughout the contest took the Blazers all the way to the Indian 45. Another penalty this time a chop-blocking foul set Millbrook up at the Indian 20 and four plays later Cardinal barreled in for a two-yard score. The two-point conversion attempt failed, but the Blazers were on the board with 32 seconds left in the first quarter.
More than midway through the second quarter, speedy senior halfback Atwoun Ackerley who was named the defensive player of the game gave the Indians a commanding 21-6 lead with right-side sweep for a 14-yard touchdown.
Millbrook, though, answered right back on a 27-yard scamper by Cardinal down the right sideline. Millbrook’s two-point attempt failed again and with 2:26 left in the first half, Liberty led 21-12.
Liberty went three and out on their next drive, but a booming 62-yard punt by Henry pin the Blazers back at their own 12 with 32 seconds remaining before the half. After a no-gainer on a first down run play, the Indians intense focus on the rush left them vulnerable deep and Blazer quarterback Jonathan Crane hit a wide open Joe Daley on an 88-yard touchdown pass. Millbrook missed on its third consecutive twopoint attempt, but the Blazers were now within three, 21-18 and set to receive the second-half kickoff.
But Ackerley made perhaps the play of the game on that second half kickoff. Liberty, as usual, went to the onsides kick, and Ackerly ran under a perfectly-placed kick by Henry, recovered the ball and gave Liberty the ball deep in Blazer territory at the 31.
Four plays later Jackson would again connect with a wide-open Henry, this time for a 22-yard score, to expand the Liberty lead. The PAT gave the Indians a 28-18 lead.
“We wanted to come out and get the ball back so we could score as much as possible,” said an elated Ackerley after the game. “I didn’t want my defense out there again so I just went up and got it.”
With Liberty’s defense solving Millbrook’s vaunted double wing attack, the Blazers would not make it near the Liberty red-zone again.
"They [Liberty] did two things right that basically won them the game,” said Millbrook coach Sean Keenan “First, took advantage of the turnovers they created with their onsides kicks and second they came into the game well-prepared and well-coached.
“There was no trick to their win, they just outplayed us. “They were definitely the better team on Friday."
Henry picked up offensive player of the game honors and finished with 106-yards rushing on 11 carries, six catches for 89-yards and two scores, was five of five in PAT attempts and even completed a pass for 41 yards.
“I just like doing whatever I can to help our team win,” said Henry. “It doesn’t matter where I play or what I do as long as I help the team in a positive way.”
Quinn Jackson had 60 yards on the ground with two touchdowns and completed seven of 11 passes for 93 yards and two more touchdowns along with one interception.
Ackerley had seven tackles, a rushing touchdown and recovered two onsides kicks that would lead to two more touchdowns.
“Atwoun rose to the occasion and played very well today,” said Wilhelm “He was everywhere and had a great day. Those are the kinds of efforts we want from our guys every week.”
For his part, Ackerley said simply, “I was hungry, I was real hungry to get this win, I think we all were and that’s why it turned out this way.”
About Saturday’s rematch against O’Neil, Wilhelm said, “We played them earlier in the season and they got the best of us [21-0]. Hopefully we can bounce back and pay them the favor.
“They’re tough, real tough up front so our front guys are going to have to do a real good job next week to match-up with their guys. It’s going to be a battle.
Sullivan West falls
Story by Fred Stabbert III
Going into last Friday’s Class C semifinal matchup Sullivan West had one thing on their mind stopping James I. O’Neills’ star running back Jerry Nasi.
The Bulldogs were focused on stopping Section IX’s leading rusher and scorer and even implemented a new defensive alignment to prevent Nasi from running wild.
The good news is that Sullivan West was able to slow down Nasi on Middletown’s fast Faller Field turf.
The bad news is that James I. O’Neill junior quarterback Keegan West unveiled a potent passing attack, throwing for five touchdowns enroute to a 39-14 victory and a date against Liberty in the Class C championship game this Saturday.
“We knew they (Sullivan West) were going to key in on Jerry,” said an elated West, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Offensive Player. “The middle was open all day and we have receivers that can catch.”
West was 8-9 passing for 317 yards, with five of his bombs going for touchdowns.
“We came in with a game plan and were worried about Nasi we played defense for that,” said Sullivan West assistant coach Kurt Buddenhagen. “We found out that their receivers and quarterback are pretty good too.”
The first time O’Neill touched the ball was on their own 22-yard line. Two runs up the middle by Nasi produced only three yards.
But on third and seven, West faked a handoff up the middle and rolled to his right.
Tight end Malik Chambers ran up the field and West hit him in stride at the 50-yard line and he outraced the Sullivan West defenders to the endzone for a 75-yard touchdown.
The long touchdown pass gave O’Neill a 7-0 lead.
O’Neill Coach Anthony Finochio said, “You take whatever a defense is going to give you.”
On its next possession Sullivan West quarterback Sawyer Erlwein ran up the middle for 25 yards to put the ball into O’Neill territory.
But the Raiders’ defense stiffened and Sullivan West punter Cody Franskevicz pinned O’Neill on the 1-yard line.
A run by Nasi for 7 yards and a quarterback scramble by West for 8 got the ball out of the shadow of the endzone.
West then hit James Johnson on a 60-yard bomb all the way down to the 23-yard line and three plays later Nasi ran it in for the score and a 13-0 O’Neill lead.
The Raiders would add two more TDs in the second quarter, taking a commanding 26-0 lead into the lockerroom.
The play of the game came midway through the second quarter when O’Neill ran a flea fickler from its own 50-yard line and West hit a streaking Chris Olave for a touchdown.
“We call it the razzle dazzle,” West said.
But as potent as O’Neill’s offense was its defense was just as strong.
It limited the high scoring Bulldogs to only 14 points, both of the those touchdowns coming late in the fourth quarter.
“We did a lot of film study,” O’Neill defense coordinator Steve Loginott said. “We pretty much were able to shut down their run game. But when you have the horses they are pretty easy to ride.”
The “horses” include 12 senior and 11 juniors who won a Class C title for O’Neill last year.
Leading the way was senior linebacker Eric Wallace, who was named defensive player of the game for his 12 1/2 tackles.
“We are definitely a lot better than last year,” Loginott said.
“O’Neill has a senior dominated team and we are a young team,” Buddenhagen said.
Bulldog head coach Ron Bauer said, “O’Neill had a very fast team. To even get to the playoffs was great. Our seniors played hard.”
For senior Sawyer Erlwein, his last game as a Bulldog was a tough one. O’Neill keyed on his every move and whether he was running or passing, two defenders were in his pocket on every play.
Erlwein was limited to 35 rushing yards on 23 rushes and 20 passing yards on 16 attempts.
It wasn’t until midway through the fourth that Sullivan West was finally able to light up the scoreboard.
A 40-yard run up the middle by Richard Shevak accounted for the first Bulldogs TD and Cody Franskevicz hauled in a 6-yard pass from Erlwein two minutes later for the last score.
Sullivan West finished the season 6-3, with its three losses coming to team’s with a combined 20-7 record.