PEORIA — A month after their season was nearly derailed by a devastating defeat, the Liberty Lions are entering the Open Division postseason bracket playing their best football of 2021.
With one of their main offensive weapons back from injury, Liberty calmly dispatched the crosstown rival Centennial Coyotes 42-24 on Friday night at Coyotes Field to run through the Desert Valley Region undefeated and enter next week’s playoffs sporting a healthy four-game winning streak.
“I’m happy to win because we knew this would be a very tough game,” Liberty Head Coach Colin Thomas said after the contest. “We hung in there tonight — I think holding them to field goals instead of touchdowns was huge. Eventually we made some big plays in the second half to ice it.”
Centennial Head Coach Richard Taylor knew his team missed some opportunities that could’ve turned the tide.
“We’ve fought all year and our kids played hard tonight,” Taylor said. “But we just hurt ourselves too much tonight to win against a quality team — and Liberty has an outstanding football team.”
Liberty junior running back Zach Wallace, who had missed several region games with a shoulder injury, returned to the starting lineup Friday and paid huge dividends. He provided two second-half rushing scores to give the Lions some breathing room after Centennial had whittled a 25-point lead down to just 4,
“I felt good, I felt fresh,” Wallace said after the game. “It was great to get back out there.”
With Centennial celebrating Senior Night, the Coyotes looked inspired early but it didn’t take long for Liberty to spoil the party.
On the second play from scrimmage, Liberty quarterback Dom Ochoa lofted a perfect 68-yard TD pass to Grant Brunelle who had gotten past the Coyotes’ secondary. When Nathan Hawkins made the PAT, the Lions silenced the home crowd with a 7-0 lead just 27 seconds into the game.
Undaunted, Centennial took 11 plays to get on the scoreboard. The Coyotes dynamic duo in the backfield — James Scott and Kavaughn Clark — spearheaded the drive that stalled in the red zone.
Centennial kicker Brysen Gardner booted a 32-yard field goal to cut the Liberty lead to 7-3 with 8:34 left in the first:
Coyotes running game gets going and it leads to a 32 yard field goal by @BrysenGardner.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 13, 2021
#4/6 @LibertyFBLions 7
#18 @Cehsfootball 3
8:34 - 1st Quarter
6A Desert Valley Region@AZPreps365 @AzNewsmedia #WesrValleyPreps pic.twitter.com/7O10wjQ4JT
The Lions then took off on a 21-0 run to take their biggest lead of the night.
Wallace and Jaqua Anderson keyed the ground game before quarterback Navi Bruzon, splitting time with Ochoa, found Johnathan Kennedy with a 36-yard touchdown strike.
After a Coyotes punt, an 8-play scoring drive ended with Anderson knifing in from two yards out:
Liberty’s @navibruzon threw a 36-yard TD and then @JaquaAnderson17 scored. Ethan Maxey gets a pick to end the frame and Lions in total control.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 13, 2021
#4/6 @LibertyFBLions 21
#18 @Cehsfootball 3
6.6 - 1st Quarter
6A Desert Valley Region@AZPreps365 @AzNewsmedia #WesrValleyPreps pic.twitter.com/1VTFztxSuB
Hawkins’ PAT made it 21-3 with 6.6 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Liberty momentum continued when Ethan Maxey intercepted Centennial’s Austin Glimpse on the next play from scrimmage. That led to a 16-yard TD pass from Bruzon to Darin Barrows over the middle and a 28-3 Lions advantage with 10:45 before halftime.
Centennial brought in Steven Urquiza at quarterback and he immediately provided a spark.
He and James Scott led an eight-play drive culminating with a 26-yard field goal from Gardner:
Centennial’s @BrysenGardner 2/2 on FG tonight after this 26-yarder.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 13, 2021
#4/6 @LibertyFBLions 28
#18 @Cehsfootball 6
7:39 - 2nd Quarter
6A Desert Valley Region@AZPreps365 @AzNewsmedia #WesrValleyPreps pic.twitter.com/zo17aiAYSW
Liberty still led 28-6 but momentum was shifting.
The Coyotes defense forced a three-and-out and after a nice punt return by Drew Lopez, Urquiza went to work. In the red zone, he scrambled for nine yards and 4 yards on successive plays. On second-and-goal at the 4, Urquiza lofted a touchdown pass to Willie Paris:
Best drive of the night for the Coyotes ends with @steven_urquiza finding Willie Paris for a 4-yard TD pass. @BrysenGardner PAT good.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 13, 2021
#4/6 @LibertyFBLions 28
#18 @Cehsfootball 13
2:24- 2nd Quarter
6A Desert Valley Region@AZPreps365 @AzNewsmedia #WesrValleyPreps pic.twitter.com/8XBOp0WNEy
Gardner made the PAT and Centennial trailed 28-13 with 2:24 left before halftime.
The same punting miscue that plagued Liberty against Brophy came back to haunt them again on the next series. The fourth-down snap flew over Jaylen Johnson’s head and Johnson booted the bouncing ball out of the back of the end zone for a safety that brought Centennial within 28-15 with under two minutes to go.
Off the free kick, the Coyotes looked to get within one score before the halftime break. Clark rumbled down the field for a couple carries and Michael Mara hauled in a pass but Centennial had to settle for a 27-yard field goal from Gardner and Liberty led 28-18 at the half.
The teams traded punts before the Coyotes scratched even closer. Running back Jaylen Scott was the workhorse on the drive, carrying four times and eventually diving in from one yard out:
Coyotes’ Jaylen Scott takes it in from a yard out. PAT blocked. 21 straight Centennial points.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 13, 2021
#4/6 @LibertyFBLions 28
#18 @Cehsfootball 24
6:40 - 3rd Quarter
6A Desert Valley Region@AZPreps365 @AzNewsmedia #WesrValleyPreps pic.twitter.com/C2m6gOQNHO
“Jaylen was a man running the ball tonight,” Taylor said.
The PAT was blocked but Liberty’s lead was down to 28-24 with 6:40 left in the third quarter.
The Lions needed a big play and got it when Ochoa found Kennedy on a long pass down the left sideline that put the ball near the red zone. Jordon Guevara hauled in a critical pass on third and 7 for a first down.
On fourth and goal at the 1, the Liberty offensive line got just enough push to get Wallace over the goal line:
On fourth and goal at the 1, Liberty’s Zach Wallace punches it in. @hawkinsnathan_ PAT good.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 13, 2021
#4/6 @LibertyFBLions 35
#18 @Cehsfootball 24
1:51- 3rd Quarter
6A Desert Valley Region@AZPreps365 @AzNewsmedia #WesrValleyPreps pic.twitter.com/PzhSJecgne
Hawkins’ PAT made it 35-24 with 1:51 left in the third.
“The O-line was getting to the second level,” Wallace noted. “Pushing back Centennial is not easy.”
Centennial was not done, using both James Scott and Clark to move the ball into Liberty territory. That’s when the Lions’ defensive leader made one of the plays of the night.
Centennial’s Noah Carter caught a pass over the middle in the red zone but Liberty’s Jax Stam leveled Carter, forcing a fumble that was scooped up and returned near midfield by Dom Huerta.
Stam then donned the “turnover chain” on the Liberty sideline as he stood up on the bench to celebrate with his teammates and the Lions’ sizable crowd that made the short trip across town.
“We pride ourselves on playing four quarters,” Stam said. “We shook off some of those earlier plays and we finished strong.”
The Lions’ looked to put the rivalry game on ice and a 10-play drive did just that as Wallace rushed in from two yards out to provide the finishing touch with 6:47 left in the game.
Centennial’s last gasp was later snuffed out when Glimpse was sacked by My’Keil Gardner and a host of Lions defenders on fourth-and-22.
But all is not lost for Centennial, who finished their most difficult season in decades at 3-7, 0-4.
With several 6A squads promoted to the Open bracket, the Coyotes slipped into the 16-team 6A bracket with the 13th seed based on their tremendously difficult 2021 schedule. Centennial will travel to 4th-seeded Red Mountain (9-2) for a 7 p.m. kickoff on Friday, November 19.
Liberty (8-2, 4-0) locked down the 6th seed in the 8-team Open Division with the win. The Lions will take a week off before playing at #3 Basha (10-0) with kickoff set for 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 26.
“We accepted the challenge after that Queen Creek loss and we feel confident going into the playoffs,” said Stam. “The second season is upon us — we are healthy and we will be ready for it.”
Stam’s head coach agreed.
“Every since that QC game, we knew we had to get better,” Thomas explained. “We’ve done that. We are lucky enough to have kids that believe and bought into the changes and we’re excited about the next few weeks.”
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