Liberty picks up first win of 2021

By Clay Hamlett
Courier Sports

LIBERTY — Legendary college football coach Lou Holtz was once quoted as saying, “Without self-discipline, success is impossible — period.”

This is no secret to football fans, who understand that the game is often won and lost at the hands of the most disciplined team.

Seth Terry, a two-way star for the Liberty High School Red Devils as both a halfback and linebacker, echoed that sentiment following a gritty 8-7 victory over the Carolina Trojans last Friday.

“The coaches disciplined us to do our jobs fundamentally,” he said. “We won this game through discipline.”

Terry had good reason to reference the self-control and poise of the Red Devils in the aftermath of their third contest of the season. The Trojans buried themselves continually by racking up an eye-popping 20 penalties for a total of 131 lost yards. Although Liberty was far from perfect — accumulating eight penalties of its own for 50 yards — the Devils’ ability to limit self-inflicted mistakes ultimately drove them to their first win of the season.

A promising opening drive for the Red Devils — led by their ground-and-pound rushing attack — was cut short following a red zone fumble that the Carolina defense fell on at the 9-yard line.

The Trojans’ first possession highlighted a clear offensive schematic difference between the two schools, as quarterback JaSean Bowens guided a heavy passing attack down the field. Perhaps the highlight of the game for Carolina occurred on third and nine when Bowens scrambled to his right and found wide receiver Quinten McCombs running free along the sideline. McCombs weaved his way around defenders before ultimately being dropped inside the Liberty 10-yard line on an electrifying 71-yard completion. One play later, running back Naja Deck split the Red Devil defense in half with a run up the middle to put Carolina on the board with a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.

Undeterred by the Trojans’ early momentum, Liberty returned to their three-headed monster of a running game, led by quarterback Peyton Reed and halfbacks J.J. Hernandez and Terry. Hernandez received the majority of the early snaps and paid it off with a six-yard rushing score set to even the game. In a turn of events, a Carolina encroachment penalty on the Red Devils’ extra-point try led to a split-second decision to attempt a two-point conversion instead. Once again, it was Hernandez barreling into the end zone to give Liberty an 8-7 lead early in the second quarter.

From there, a game that had showed signs of potentially becoming a shootout turned into a defensive slugfest, highlighted by two defenses that bent but refused to break. On the ensuing Carolina possession, a barrage of passes from Bowens to wide receiver Zanterio Spurgeon set up the Trojan offense in scoring position. In what would become a familiar refrain for the evening, multiple Carolina penalties dug the Trojans into a third-and-long hole. Bowens targeted Spurgeon again, but the Red Devil defense was ready this time, as Terry jumped in front of the pass for the interception. Backed up inside their own 10-yard line, the Devils dug themselves out of poor field position with a beautiful pass from Reed to wideout Landon Ziegler for a big 38-yard gain. Despite the exhilarating play, the drive ultimately stalled courtesy of a sack by two-way Carolina star Quinten McCombs. Carolina let the last few seconds of the second quarter tick away, bringing an end to an even-handed first half.

Desperate to recapture the magic of their first drive, the Trojans began the second half with a more run-focused approach that utilized both the skillset of Deck and the scrambling ability of Bowens. Following a stretch of three penalties in four plays, Carolina was forced to turn to punter Carlos Lopez, who pinned Liberty inside its own 20. Although Terry broke free multiple times on key rushes, a false start dug the Red Devil offense into a hole they couldn’t recover from. This rapidly ballooned into a much greater problem when the snap sailed past the head of Hernandez, who drew punting duties for the night. Hernandez had no choice but to fall on the loose ball for a loss of 23 yards. With the Carolina offense set up in prime field position at the Liberty 21, the Red Devil defense highlighted their unrelenting and determined spirit by quickly forcing a fourth down. Carlos Lopez attempted a 36-yard field goal to give the Trojans the lead, but it came up just short of the goal posts in a crushing blow to Carolina’s chances.

Following a Liberty three-and-out, Bowens and the Trojan offense put the missed opportunity behind them and worked their way into Red Devil territory again. On a fourth and one, Bowens kept the ball on a designed run and raced for a first down. A familiar flag near the line of scrimmage cut short the celebration on the Carolina sideline, as a holding call brought the play back. Bowens scrambled out again, but Liberty linebacker Cameron Carver made the stop of the night, dragging down the Trojan quarterback a yard shy of the marker. Carolina had a final chance to score later in the quarter, but a second interception by Terry capped a dominant defensive performance for the Red Devils.

Overall, Liberty’s third outing of the year was a true team effort for an offense that continuously ground out the clock and a defense that prevented Carolina from ever gaining an offensive foothold.

Simply put, these are the kind of games that teams look back on as a key stepping stone to future success. Was it pretty? No. Was it effective? Absolutely, and the enthusiastic buzz from the Red Devil faithful as they filtered out into the chilly night reflected it.

The Red Devils — winners for the first time this year — will look to establish a winning streak next week on the road at winless West Oak. As region play begins, only time will tell how high the scrappy Red Devils can climb.