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Liberty Football Preseason Report: Could be the best team under third-year coach

Wednesday, Aug. 20 | By Peter Brewington
Liberty finished last season with a 7-5 record. --Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
Youthful exuberance was on display at about 9 a.m. on Aug. 8 at Eagle Stadium when a soccer ball somehow materialized in the middle of a group of football players who had apparently really enjoyed the FIFA World Cup

Brazilians or Germans they were not.

Starting quarterback Aaron Walters tried to send a free kick into the goal area, but didn't strike it that well, drawing ribbing. Massive lineman R.J. Proctor actually looked nimble as tried to show off his dribbling wizardry, but there's little chance a English Premier League team signs the 300-pounder to be a striker.

Coach Sean Finnerty soon broke up the kickball follies, admonishing his kids to "Get that soccer ball out of here!"

Finnerty knows American football is what his team does best.

A week before Friday's season opening scrimmage against Amherst County, Liberty's third year coach was carrying the same excitement and worry that predecessor Tommy Buzzo used to wear in preseason.

Liberty has had up-and-down regular seasons of 6-4 in 2012 and 6-4 in 2013. At the same time, there have been plenty of rave reviews.

Finnerty is 4-0 lifetime vs. Kettle Run and Fauquier, and also posted opening round playoff upsets of Sherando in 2012 and a big revenge win over Handley last year.

Both seasons ended with losses to higher seeds (Briar Woods in 2012 and Sherando in 2013), and Finnerty knows he needs a stronger regular season to ignite a deeper playoff run.

Liberty's prospects look excellent this fall.

The Eagles feature 14 senior starters, and a veteran offensive line anchored by the University of Virginia-committed Proctor — who is is 6-foot-4, 315 pounds — and his 6-3, 330-pound tag team buddy Kris Sheppard.

The offensive weaponry looks solid with versatile run-pass QB Walters back, along with running backs Martin Parker and T.J. Hogan. Veteran Ja Quan Sinclair has been moved to the slot, where he will catch passes and run.

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Eagles at a glance

Classification: Class 4A, North Region, Conference 22

Coach: Sean Finnerty (third year, 14-10)

Last year: Finished 7-5. Lost to Sherando 34-12 in Class 4A North Region quarterfinal.

First game: Aug. 29, home vs.. Handley, 7 p.m.

Possible weaknesses: Right now Liberty would change its offense if playmaking junior QB Aaron Walters got hurt. Finnerty is trying to get backups Joe Glass and Drake Bowman ready. Glass and Bowman are splitting the No. 2 reps right now.

How has practice gone? "It's the best week of practice I have been associated with at Liberty," said Finnerty.

Biggest surprises in camp? Finnerty gushes about the tall, athletic Anthony Spagnoletti, a defensive back/wide receiver. "He has really come into his own as a football player and leader," Finnerty said. The coach also praises Morgan Estep, who will start at defensive end and tight end, and Christopher Hill, who could develop into the team's No. 1 receiver.

Biggest concerns so far? "We are not very deep, so injuries are always a concern," said Finnerty.

What are you expecting from Friday's opening scrimmage? "I want us to hustle, hit, and run to the ball. There will be mistakes on both sides of the ball, but if we run and hit that will compensate for mistakes."

Areas of the team you are most pleased with? "The offensive line has come together as one of the best units in Liberty history," Finnerty said. Besides Proctor and Sheppard the offensive and defensive line group includes seniors Ben Wolfe, Michael Wigglesworth, Isaiah Jordan, Dylan Ramirez, Dylan Mullins, Morgan Estep and Dylan Mullins.

Loneliest man on the practice field: Liberty punter/placekicker Tommy Smith moves around the practice field like a man without a country. He's the only kicker and punter on the team and is by himself a lot. Smith says he's working with a former Ferrum University kicker on his own twice a week and it's helping.

Oh boy, Handley again: After blowing a 42-21 third quarter lead against Handley in last year's season opener and losing 45-42, the Eagles got sweet revenge by outgunning the Judges 49-47 in their Class 4A playoff opener last November. Both teams look strong, so another thrilling game looms. The Judges return star receiver Justin Washington and a relentless pass-happy offense. "I'd like to see a 28-27 game or something like that this year," said Finnerty. "Not another one of those shootouts."

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