By Steve Ruman
The winner will be in control of the White Division of the AAC White.
All throughout the Valley there are vivid reminders that autumn is in full bloom. The leaves have changed from summer green to spectacular shades of red, gold and brown. The days have become shorter and cooler. Front yards are adorned with pumpkins and corn stalks.
Oh, and the surest sign of autumn’s arrival? Hubbard and Liberty are about to square off in a game brimming with conference title and playoff implications.
Friday the Eagles bring their 6-1 record to Liberty, where they will face an unbeaten Leopards team that boasts a 7-0 mark. As has been the case for the past decade, the game will help decide a league champion, and the winner will also gather a heap of computer playoff points.
Liberty is in third place in Division III, Region 9, while Hubbard is ranked fifth. With a win, Liberty would claim the outright All-American Conference (White Division) title. The Leopards own a 3-0 record in the five-team division.
Hubbard, which is 2-0 in league play, can claim the conference title with a win Friday followed by a week 9 victory over Struthers. The Eagles have won six straight games since falling to Poland in the season opener.
During the final nine years of the Trumbull Athletic Conference, Liberty and Hubbard combined to win seven league titles, with Hubbard winning four.
“I know that a lot of people view Brookfield as our main rival, but if you ask our students of the past decade, they’ll point to Liberty,” said Hubbard coach Brian Hoffman. “That’s a credit to how good Liberty has been. It seems as though every time we play them, something huge is on the line.”
Leopards coach Jeff Whittaker echoed those comments, adding this game has emerged into one of the premiere ones in the area.
“We’re practically in each other’s backyard, so that in itself creates an intense rivalry. But the success shared by both programs as of late has only fueled the fire,” Whittaker said.
While the two teams took turns winning TAC titles over the past decade, the series has been dominated by Hubbard. The Eagles have won 11 of the last 13 meetings, including three in a row, and lead the series 16-5 overall.
Hubbard defeated Liberty twice in 2006 — once in the regular season and once in the playoffs.
If Hubbard is going to continue its mastery over Liberty, it will have to contain Leopards’ standout running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who leads all area rushers with 1,624 yards and 24 touchdowns. Toussaint is averaging 13 yards per carry.
“No disrespect to any other back we’ve faced this year, but no one compares to Fitzgerald,” Hoffman said. “He brings so much to the table. He’ll run over you or around you. And when he doesn’t have the football in his hands, he’s a tremendous blocker.
“As a coach, you always want to simulate in practice what you’re going to face on Friday night. We can’t do that, because unfortunately we don’t anyone to compare to a Fitzgerald Toussaint on our team.”
Hoffman is quick to note that Liberty is far from a one-man team.
“They have another guy [Isaiah Bell] going to Michigan and they have all sorts of playmakers. Their quarterback [Anthony Cleveland] is very poised and he doesn’t make mistakes,” Hoffman said. “Defensively, they are as strong as any team we’ll face. They play sound team defense.”
Hubbard hopes to counter with a balanced offensive attack which will feature a combination of the pass and run. While Liberty is predominantly a run-oriented team (2,307 rushing yards, 237 passing yards), the Eagles have mixed up their ground game (1,178 yards) with a reliable passing attack (736 yards).
Senior running back Andre Givens leads Hubbard with 850 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Eagles’ quarterback duo of Matt Shelton and Sam Bellino have completed 45-of-74 passes.
“Early on, we made a conscious decision to run a balanced offense,” Hoffman said. “Our running game is our bread and butter, but at the same time we can’t just let teams stack the box. At this point in the season, you have to be able to mix things up.”
Hubbard’s six-game winning streak includes victories over Warren JFK, Howland and Lakeview — proof they are battle-tested, according to Whittaker.
“This is a huge game for both teams, and we know that Hubbard isn’t going to come here and be intimidated by anything,” Whittaker said. “They’ve played in the spotlight just like we have. This is simply going to be one of those exciting games that make high school football so special.
“It’s a clich , but this game really will come down to which team holds on to the ball and doesn’t make mistakes.”