With a final score of 42-14, the Leopards finally reached an elusive goal.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
HUBBARD -- The celebration started on the sideline (as the Leopards were serenaded by their band) continued at midfield (where dozens of Liberty High students rushed the field), spread to the parking lot (where the Leopards were chanting and the horns were honking) and, presumably, lasted into the night.
It's hard to say, of course. It could still be going on.
"I can't explain how I feel right now," Liberty senior Chris Harden said. "It's great."
For all the Liberty High football team has accomplished since 1999 -- two league titles, two playoff appearances, multiple Division I college recruits -- there was one thing it hadn't done.
"It hasn't all been [bad] luck," Liberty coach Jeff Whittaker said. "They've had some good teams."
But on Friday, Whittaker had a better one.
The Leopards reversed six years of disappointment with four quarters of solid football, toppling Trumbull Athletic Conference rival Hubbard 42-14.
"I think we wanted it more," Harden said. "We were more hungry."
They were also faster.
A lot faster.
The Leopards (5-0, 2-0) had eight plays of more than 20 yards (the Eagles had one) and scored on touchdown runs of 74, 70, 22 and 36 yards.
Liberty is this week's No. 4 team in the Divison III Region 9 computer playoff ratings and Hubbard is number 8.
The back-breaker came with 6:49 left in the fourth quarter when Liberty senior quarterback David Ferrell broke through the Hubbard line for a 36-yard touchdown run to make it 35-14.
"We made some big plays," said Harden, who finished with 201 yards rushing and scored twice. "We started out a little flat, but once we got our heads back into the game, we played with a lot of heart and intensity."
After going three-and-out on its opening series, Liberty was caught flat-footed on the Eagles' first offensive play.
Hubbard wideout Russell Hawkins got the ball on a reverse, Liberty's defense bit and Hawkins hit wideout Eddie Palestro for a 65-yard touchdown to make it 7-0.
After touchdown runs by Harden and Robert Hightower gave the Leopards a 14-7 lead, Hubbard senior Tony Giancola tied the game on a 2-yard touchdown run on first-and-goal early in the second quarter.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, Giancola, who has been struggling with injury all season, dove across the goal line, got hit in the air and landed on his head. He was carried off on a stretcher and taken to Forum Health Northside Medical Center with lower back pain. (Early reports were encouraging.)
"I thought when Giancola went down, that really took the wind out of their sails," Whittaker said. "He's a great back and I'm glad to hear he's doing OK."
2 minutes left
Hightower, who finished with 142 yards rushing, added a 22-yard touchdown run just before the half and Sean Morrison scored on a 4-yard run with two minutes left in the game to close out the scoring.
Ferrell added 56 yards rushing and 57 yards passing (on three catches by Donovan Fletcher) as the Leopards outgained Hubbard 492-305. Running back Dania Gillam twisted his knee on his only carry.
"That happens in football," Harden said of Gillam's injury. "We just had to overcome it."
Giancola finished with 60 yards on 10 carries, and Steve Cinicola added 56 on 11 carries for the Eagles (3-2, 1-1), who lost two fumbles and an interception.
After the game, Whittaker got an early shower when his team dumped the water cooler over his head. And while the victory felt good, Whittaker could have lived without the water.
"It's cold," he said, smiling. "Very cold."