Businesslike Liberty football heads back to Open semifinals

Lions handle O'Connor 56-26 in rematch

Posted 11/27/22

It was not going to happen again in the Open Division. Liberty would not trample O'Connor 50-0 in the first half en route to a 53-0 win like it did Oct. 28.

Still, the top-seeded Lions were in complete control of the rematch

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Businesslike Liberty football heads back to Open semifinals

Lions handle O'Connor 56-26 in rematch


It was not going to happen again in the Open Division. Liberty would not trample O'Connor 50-0 in the first half en route to a 53-0 win like it did Oct. 28.

Still, the top-seeded Lions were in complete control of the rematch, building leads of 21-6 at halftime and 49-12 about three minutes into the fourth quarter.

Visiting #8 seed O'Connor (7-4) scored two touchdown passes from senior Cooper King to top senior receiver Ben Currence against the Lions' second team defense. But Liberty (11-0), maybe for the first time all season, was looking ahead in the fourth quarter of its 56-26 quarterfinal win.

"The fourth quarter took forever but at that point in time I wanted to get guys out of the game," Liberty coach Colin Thomas said. "That made it look a little sloppy in the end, but in reality we played a really good third quarter."

Liberty will remain highly ranked nationally, but the north Peoria power will face its toughest test in the drive for the program's first Open Division final.

The Lions have to defeat defending champion and #5 seed Scottsdale Saguaro (8-3) again, now on Dec. 3 at nearby Mountain Ridge High School. The Sabercats have not lost since Liberty won 26-17 in Scottsdale on Sept. 30.

Saguaro's latest win was its most impressive, leading for nearly the entire game in a 45-35 win at #4 Chandler Hamilton (8-3).

"They're really good. They're really talented and well coached. They have a lot of speed too," Thomas said. "Once you get to the Open semifinals, you're going to play someone really good. The top six teams are really good and we've played a lot of them. It'll be a great game and if we're able to move on, we'll have to earn it." 

Another 36-point first quarter was not in the offing, but Liberty still scored on its first three possessions to lead 21-0 six seconds into the second quarter.

Junior quarterback Navi Bruzon completed all five passes on the Lions opening drive for 72 yards. Senior running back Zach Wallace finished with a two-yard touchdown plunge.

Then Bruzon connected with senior receiver Grant Brunelle for a 47-yard touchdown bomb, then recovered an onside kick. Bruzon and Brunelle started the second quarter with another touchdown on a 12-yard connection.

"We have many different weapons on the receiving end all with different skill sets. I’ve been on the varsity field for three years and know there are going to be games that I get looked to more than others, and you just have to make them count when they come," Brunelle said.

O'Connor stopped the bleeding the rest of the second half.

A 35-yard pass from King to Currence brought the Eagles to the Lions' 22. Six plays later junior fullback Nate Bayus burrowed in from the 1.

"We know we didn't play a great game the first time we played them, and we didn't prepare to play a great game the first time. I though we prepared a lot harder for this game," O'Connor coach Brian Cole said. "It was 21-6 at halftime, but we made a couple big mistakes. They got the onside kick and we fumbled the ball. Both of those hurt us. You can't give them short fields."

The Lions switched tactics to start the second half, rolling up 76 yards on five carries. Wallace and Bruzon alternated on the first four totes, then junior Jaqua Anderson moved from the slot to running back and burst up the middle for a 45-yard touchdown and 28-6 Liberty lead.

Wallace is the Lions' leading rusher for the third straight year, but his senior season has been injury marred. He took on a larger workload Friday, gaining 55 yards on 13 carries.

Bruzon hit junior tight end Braylon Gardner on a vertical route for a 22-yard touchdown with 4:05 left in the third.

"Schematically they did switch it up on defense a bit compared to the first game but we as a team do our homework and go against a great defense in practice that can run anything and gives us scout looks, getting us ready as an offense every week," Brunelle said.

King responded by leading a 71-yard touchdown drive, finishing it with a nine-yard scoring run. The 35-12 score held for only a minute and 32 seconds.

Safety Raneill Calvin checked into the backfield and took a sweep for 25 yards and the touchdown that gave Liberty a 42-12 lead after three.

"I thought in the third quarter we played really well and created separation," Thomas said.

Another successful onside kick led to a three-yard Wallace rushing touchdown with 8:43 left. Then the focus shifted to health.

Currence and King helped make the final score of the Eagles' first Open Division game look more respectable. O'Connor was not mentioned as a contender for a top eight ranking before Cole's second year as coach, but arrived early.

"I really think our weight program has turned it around quite a bit. That's the No. 1 thing. From day one we got them in the weight room and changed some things. And the kids bought in. We have a very good coaching staff that works hard and get the kids to respond," Cole said. "My goal when I got here was to get to the Open and to get to the Open every year. To get here in year two, we're ahead of schedule."

Liberty added an 11-yard touchdown run by sophomore Hayden Fletcher to cap the scoring.

Two years ago, the Lions were the upstarts nearly knocking off Chandler. Now they're ranked in the MaxPreps national top 15 and a slight favorite to win the state's toughest division.

Liberty continues do do it as a collective. The defense was not as dominating but did not allow O'Connor to have hope of competing even without Oregon-bound defensive end My'Keil Gardner.

Thomas said Gardner was out with an illness but should be available next week.

He also said senior defensive back Dominic Ochoa was being evaluated for a potential concussion after a scary third qiarter collision with King at the Lions' 1.

Bruzon again picked the Eagles apart, going 17 for 26 for 282 yards.  Brunelle caught 6 passes for 95 yards while Anderson nabbed 7 for 73 yards.

"That's the cool thing. Every night it can be a different guy. Grant's a really good player and really consistent player. If you go back and look at his track record, he's played really good in the playoffs. Next week will be his sixth Open playoff game and he's played well in every one of them. We trust him  a ton," Thomas said. "I though all of them played really well tonight."