Eli Ruiz | Democrat
Sullivan West running back Jared Meola (32) gets ready to stiff arm oncoming Liberty linebacker Kevin Brannigan (51) and defensive back Jericho Male (2) as he tries to get outside on a running play.
Story by Eli Ruiz
LAKE HUNTINGTON October 8, 2013 "We're gonna go for two!"
All season long that was the refrain shouted from the sidelines by Liberty coach/ offensive coordinator John Wilhelm every time his Indians managed to score.
"We just don't have a viable kicker," offered a disappointed Wilhelm after a crushing 21-20 defeat to Class C foe James I. O'Neill in week two; a game where a "viable kicker" would arguably have made the difference for the Indians.
Last season, Liberty depended on the leg of do-it-all senior, and Sullivan County Democrat Player of the Year, Ryan Henry, also Wilhelm's stepson. But through four games this season, Liberty had no one to turn for the all-important point-after- touchdown (PAT) attempts.
Enter star Liberty soccer goalie Julian Spina, who came up big for the Indians in Friday's crucial Class C Division II come-from-behind 27-19 win over cross-county rival Sullivan West in a barn-burner of a game; the final score betraying just how close this contest really was.
In what has seemingly become a new theme in this old rivalry, the game was stopped for about an hour at the conclusion of the first quarter due to lightning. A far less important matchup between these same teams last season had to be outright cancelled for the same reason. This contest, though, carried with it critical playoff implications for both teams essentially the winner would be in the driver’s seat for a spot in the Division 2 title game.
And through most of the first half, a young, gritty Sullivan West team played inspired, smash-mouth ball.
Andrew Stabbert opened the scoring for Sullivan West on just its second drive of the game with a 27-yard scamper up the middle with 5:12 left in the frame. Michael Sedlack made good on the extra point to put the Bulldogs up 7-0.
"He's a hard, tough runner," said Sullivan West coach Ron Bauer of Stabbert. A point with which Wilhelm would agree. "He's really tough. His legs just don't stop," he said.
On the ensuing Liberty drive that started at its own 33, Indian quarterback Quinn Jackson lost the ball on a keeper on the third play. Bulldog defensive end Cody Franskevicz recovered the lost ball at about mid-field, setting up his team's offense with great field position. With just six seconds left in the first, junior quarterback Rich Shevak called his own number, plunging into the end zone from the Liberty two-yard-line. Julius Graves blocked the ensuing Sedlack PAT attempt, but the Bulldogs were up 13-0.
At the whistle, signaling the end of the first quarter, lightning would literally strike twice giving game officials no choice but to suspend play for the required half-hour. The storm raged on, though, and that half-hour eventually became a full hour before skies cleared and play resumed a long break for two teams in the midst of some fierce competition.
"I think that whole sitting around for an hour deal did not help us," offered Bauer. "We had great momentum going into the second quarter, and then we had to sit around for an hour. I don't think it helped us any. You're not quite as fired up now."
As for Liberty's Jackson, he thought the break was a boon for his Indians: "I think we needed that break," he said. "We were getting pushed around out there and we needed to do some reassessing. I think it helped."
And Jackson was right as he provided Liberty with its first score of the game exploding for a 60-yard touchdown dash that started at the middle of the field and eventually veered down the right sideline with several Bulldogs giving chase. Wilhelm opted for a two-point-conversion here but the Sullivan West defense was ready, stuffing the harried play before the goal line.
"We needed to get that first score," said Wilhelm. "I told the guys during the break that we didn't want to go into halftime down more than a score." But Liberty's defense was still having fits solving the Bulldogs’ run/pass mix and Sullivan West answered Liberty’s score on a Shevak to Franskevicz pass play from two yards out to give Sullivan West back their 13-point advantage with just nine seconds left in the half (a bad snap foiled another Sedlack extra point attempt).
"We knew we were getting the ball back to start the second half," said Wilhelm. "I told the guys that we just needed to move the ball, get another score on the board and make it a one score game."
And after eating up a lot of clock and ground with a methodical opening drive in the second half, tailback Shakree Gibson took a pitch around the left corner. His speed would provide the rest, breaking off a pretty 17-yard scamper to paydirt. With the score now 19-12, Spina would see his first action, splitting the uprights for the extra point and bringing Liberty within six, 19-13.
"I like football," said the gregarious Spina. "I love to watch it on TV. But to be honest, I never ever thought I'd be a football player."
According to Wilhelm, the addition of Spina was not by any means an overnight decision. "I put the feelers out to the soccer team early in the season, said coach Wilhelm. "We took our time with it."
Indeed, in order for anyone to play in a high school football game, he must have at least 15 practices according to state rules.
"We wanted to make sure he was ready," added Wilhelm. "He'd [Spina] come up before and after soccer practices and worked with us. When the soccer team had study halls, he'd come up and practice with us. It's a long process and we took our time with it just so he'd be ready."
"A few of my teammates on the soccer team also showed interest, but I think I was the only one who actually went up there and tried some kicks," said Spina. "Coach Wilhelm said, 'you're pretty good,' and the next thing I knew I was in pads and a helmet. I'm just enjoying it. They [the team] kinda just welcomed me to their family with open arms. It's petty cool. The uniform is a lot heavier then I imagined though."
Just a couple plays into the ensuing Bulldog drive, an excellent catch of a Shevak pass by junior back Brian Stauch a combo that connected quite a few times Friday night put Sullivan West in great position to score just inside the Liberty 20. But the Bulldogs couldn't capitalize inside the red zone and four plays later yielded the ball and some momentum to the Indians.
Liberty closed the third quarter driving behind the formidable legs of Jackson and Gibson to the Sullivan West 18 yard line.
And just 12 seconds into the fourth quarter, Jackson scored again, this time from the four- yard line, evening thea game at 19. This is where Spina figured large. Under pressure he has not felt before, Liberty's new kicker again split the uprights, giving the Indians their first lead of the seemingly endless game, 20-19, with 11:50 still left in the final frame.
A loud celebration erupted from the sizeable Liberty contingent, which was seated in the bleachers right next to the now quiet, and much larger, home-team crowd.
Liberty would not relinquish the one-point lead and tacked on another score with less than a minute left in the game on a Jericho Male interception return for a touchdown. Male picked off yet another Shevak pass in the waning seconds sealing the deal for the Indians.
"You guys have nothing to be ashamed of," Bauer could be heard consoling his devastated troops afterwards. "You all played a great game,” he added.
"It was just a couple of mistakes there," continued Bauer. "We made a couple of mistakes that cost us. We had real good momentum early in the game but then we kind of settled down that didn't help us.
Regarding his game-winning extra point, Spina said, "I just had all this adrenaline. I was just focused on those two uprights. I didn't feel anything, I just knew that I had to get this ball between those two yellow bars."
With the win Liberty improves to 3-2 (1-0 Class C Division II). The Indians face undefeated division powerhouse Millbrook at home Saturday in what will decide the Class Division 2 title.
Sullivan West fell to 0-2, 1-3 and was essentially eliminated from playoff contention.