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Liberty’s upset bid falls short

LaBrae holds on for 41-34 win

LIBERTY — On the verge of a breakthrough victory that potentially could have sealed a playoff berth, Liberty fell victim to one final, fatal miscue.

Tied at 34 and following a goal line stand, the Leopards had driven from their own 1-yard-line to the LaBrae 12 with 40 seconds to go. Out of a timeout, quarterback D.C. Ferrell scrambled out to his right with two Viking defenders — Stephen Hemberger and Tre’Von Drake — in hot pursuit.

The LaBrae players got ahold of Ferrell, and as he was spun to the ground, the ball popped loose. Cameron Rabel scooped it and raced 75 yards the other way for the game-winning touchdown, dooming Liberty’s hopes of an upset and handing the Leopards a 41-34 defeat at home Friday night.

“It’s heartbreaking; there’s no other way to put it,” Liberty head coach Joe Simon said. “Our kids played amazing on so many levels. … You’re driving to win the game, 99 yards if it works out, and I thought D.C. was down, but sometimes it doesn’t go your way. There were a couple breaks that didn’t go our way tonight, and that’s the way the game goes sometimes.”

The Leopards (5-4, 3-2 Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference Grey Tier) initially took possession deep in their own territory after forcing a fumble on a quarterback sneak from their own 1-yard-line. Liberty steadily drove the length of the field, using hard runs by Donte Venters and completions from Ferrell to a multitude of receivers to both milk the clock and get into striking distance.

But LaBrae’s strip sack sunk those efforts. The Leopards took over again, needing to drive 80 yards with just 23 seconds to go. Ultimately, a final attempt at getting the ball downfield with laterals failed to get going, as the initial pass fell incomplete.

The teams battled back and forth all night, as neither side led by more than 7. LaBrae (8-1, 5-1) nabbed a 21-14 halftime lead following a goal line stand of its own. On a fourth-and-goal from the 1, the Vikings stymied a fullback dive from La’Breilyn Wilson that would’ve potentially knotted things up going into the intermission.

Following that break, however, the Leopards came out firing. On their second play from scrimmage to start the second half, Ferrell hit Chris Cunningham on a slant, and the speedy receiver raced away for a 65-yard touchdown to draw to within 21-20.

Then, two drives later, the two connected again on a bubble screen that Cunningham housed from 35 yards out to give Liberty its first lead, a 28-21 advantage.

Ferrell finished with 317 yards and those two touchdowns on a 25-for-35 night. He was picked off once. Cunningham, meanwhile, led the Leopard receivers with seven catches for 160 yards and two scores.

Of his quarterback, Simon said, “His ability to read the defense was phenomenal tonight; that’s the best he’s played from that perspective. … For a freshman to do that is a really great sign. I wish he would’ve thrown the ball away there at the end, but he’s a freshman just trying to make a play. That stuff happens, and I’m not going to blame him, because he played his butt off.”

Of Cunningham, he added, “He’s a phenomenal guy after the catch. He makes people miss, and he’s a very savvy football player. He doesn’t look like he’s going that fast, and then he’s by you.”

LaBrae, however, answered back to retake a 34-28 lead with touchdown runs from Aidan Stephens and Devin Carter. Stephens frequently gave Liberty issues, as the quarterback ran for 152 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries and added an 80-yard house call on a kickoff. Carter notched 87 yards and a score on 16 carries.

“He was dragging guys all over the field. He threw us on his back, literally,” LaBrae head coach John Armerni said of Stephens. “He’s our guy, he’s our leader, he’s our captain. In big moments, you need guys to make big plays, and he did that tonight.”

Liberty tied things back up at 34 following a 7-yard Venters touchdown, which capped a phenomenal night for the tailback. He finished with 149 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.

Now, the Leopards enter the final week of the regular season in search of a much-needed win against Garfield, who won 31-17 over a tough Brookfield squad to continue its undefeated season. The G-Men stand at 9-0 now.

Liberty entered its game with LaBrae sitting at 14th in the Division V, Region 17 standings. The top 16 teams will enter the postseason.

“It means a lot. We might need to win that game to get in, because we’re right on the fringe,” Simon said. “Close losses don’t do you any good. The message (to the team) is to stick together. They’re mad right now; they’re angry. They wanted that game, gave everything they had, and it was there for the taking.

“Unfortunately it didn’t happen, but if we stick together, I think we can give Garfield a run for their money. … This is the best we played all year. If we keep progressing, we can hang with Garfield and try to pull one out. If we’re playing our best when the playoffs start, I’m excited about what we can do.”

jwhetzel@tribtoday.com

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