Eli Ruiz | Democrat
Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place, except at a Liberty Central School football game. Almost a year to the day of last year's cancellation of the Liberty vs. Sullivan West game, the Liberty vs. O'Neill game also had to be called, for player, coach and referee safety.
Story by Eli Ruiz
LIBERTY September 17, 2013 Whoever said lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice obviously hasn't been to a Liberty High-School football game.
Almost to the day of last season's Liberty-Sullivan West game which was called in the third quarter due to lightning and a National Weather Service tornado warning, Thursday's much-anticipated contest against defending Class C champion James I. O'Neill was likewise called in the third quarter with Liberty driving deep in Raider territory and down 13-6.
"It's pretty bizarre this would happen again," offered a disappointed Liberty head coach John Wilhelm after game officials suspended play at 7 p.m.
This year, though, the non-league game would be completed two days later, ending in a heartbreaking 21-20 Liberty loss.
And it was worth the wait as the game ended with a thrilling finish.
With 31 seconds left in the game and under pressure, Liberty quarterback Quinn Jackson hit Jericho Male with a 68-yard to pull the Indians within one point, 21-20.
As he has done in the past, Wilhelm elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win. As he put it, “we just don’t have a viable kicker.”
An O'Neill offsides penalty moved Liberty to the one-and-a-half yard line for the conversion. But Jackson's dive up the middle was stuffed just short of the end zone, leaving the Indians on the short end of an epic battle.
"I have to make that play, it just didn't happen," said a frustrated Jackson after the game. "We just got backed up. At the end of the day, you win some and you lose some and it's a game of inches, and we were just a few inches short. Fortunately it's week two and we've got a lot of season left."
"We stuck with the same play [for the final 2-point conversion] after the O'Neill penalty," explained Wilhelm. "We talked about switching the play but in the end we felt it was the best play. We felt it was our best play in that situation and we stuck with it."
"They're a great team, and I know it's a non-league game but we wanted to beat them just the same," said Jackson.
O'Neill (2-0) struck first Thursday on a 54-yard pass from quarterback Keegan West to tailback Malik Chambers who was open on a cross pattern with 12:33 left in the first quarter. David Germain's extra point attempt sailed wide left to give O'Neill a 6-0 lead early.
With less than a minute remaining in the first, a Jackson keeper from the 17-yard line looked to spell disaster for the Indians as the usually sure-handed quarterback lost the ball at the two-yard-line, but offensive tackle Tarik Johnson was in the right place at the right time, falling on the ball in the end zone to tie the score at 6. Liberty's two-point conversion try fell short leaving the score tied.
West struck again, this time with his feet, on an eight-yard touchdown run just three minutes into the second quarter.
Late in the third quarter with Liberty at the Raider 35, Jackson's pass to Shakree Gibson fell incomplete, but a pass interference call on West put Liberty near the red zone with a first down and some momentum.
But that’s when Mother Nature stepped in and the game was suspended with 3:02 left in the third quarter.
"What are you gonna do," asked Wilhelm. "It's just one of those things. Yeah, we were driving and it's unfortunate that weather would have such an impact on the game, but really it's the same for both teams."
Before the skies darkened and the winds picked up Liberty had managed its way inside the O'Neill 10-yard line three separate times, but was stopped on fourth-and-goal all three times.
"We gotta execute there," said Wilhelm. "We get inside the 10 and just couldn't punch it in. You just have to execute and get into the end zone. As head coach and as offensive coordinator it's on me."
Fast forward to Saturday and Liberty (1-1) was again at the threshold of a big score as a 16-yard run by Jackson put the Indians at the O'Neill five. But on fourth-and-goal Jackson was stuffed in the backfield by Chambers and linebacker Tom Bolak.
"We really needed that score," said Jackson. "You get that close so many times and come away empty handed. That's not how we've been coached."
Both teams' defenses stiffened into the fourth quarter. But on first down, after an O'Neill punt to the Indian 48, Jackson called his own number, breaking free, and aided by a crushing block from tight end Grant Harman, took the ball 52 yards to paydirt. Jackson followed that play with a dive up the middle for the two-point conversion giving the Indians their first lead of the game 14-13.
Several drives later, Liberty was forced to punt on fourth down.
From their own 35, O'Neill executed their most impressive drive of the game, and 11 plays later West scampered down the right sideline for a 21-yard score with just 50 seconds remaining to put O’Neill back on top. A successful two point-conversion gave the Raiders’ a seemingly safe 21-14 lead.
The ensuing O'Neill kickoff pinned Liberty at their own 27-yard line with just 47-seconds left. To make matters worse, on first down, a false start call on center Kevin Brannigan would push Liberty back even farther. But after an 11-yard strike to Patrick Fitzpatrick, and with just 31 seconds left on the clock, Jackson unloaded his touchdown bomb to Male, who was open about 12 yards outside the end zone. Male dashed into the end zone, sending the Liberty bleachers into a frenzy. Still they were one point behind and needed a PAT to tie or a two-point conversion to win.
"That's Liberty's program," said O'Neill coach Anthony Finochio. "They never back down, they execute well and they're very well coached. Their kids are just hard-nosed you know? The game’s never over with them."
Wilhelm was certainly disappointed with the outcome, but pleased with the effort and heart of his team.
"We lost a lot of key players from last season, but I think we played really well,” said Wilhelm. “We're a lot further along than I thought we'd be at this point. Hats off to O'Neill. They're a really good team. They lost a lot to graduation, but you look at their roster and there are a lot of seniors starting. They're tough. Hopefully we'll get another shot at them."
Jackson finished with 132 yards passing and 92 yards on 17 carries. Shakree Gibson rushed for a team-high 115 yards in his second game as an Indian after transferring from Fallsburg while Jericho Male led receivers with three receptions for 72 yards.
"It was a great win this week, great win last week [at Chester]," said Finochio. "But those games don't mean anything because we start our league schedule this week."
Rushing Chambers 21-118 yds.; West 7-53, 2TD
Passing West 10-21, 117 yds, 1 TD
Receiving Chambers 6-89, 1 TD; Shepherd 2-14
Rushing Gibson 12-115 yds; Jackson 17-92, 1 TD; Morgans 7-20
Passing Jackson 132 yds., 1 TD
Receiving Male 3-72, 1 TD; Fitzpatrick 3-54