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Dominant through 3 quarters, Liberty survives Sherando in region football quarters

Saturday, Nov. 22 | By Jeff Malmgren
Libertys Aaron Walters (7), Dylan Mullins (52), Brent Smith (25) and Michael Wigglesworth (71) stop Sherando running back LeeQuan Johnson during Liberty's 35-24 win in the quarterfinals of the Class 4A North Region playoffs Friday night in Bealeton. --Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
Liberty's defensive linemen watched a funny film this week while preparing for their playoff football game.

It helped the Eagles dominate the line of scrimmage Friday and beat the Sherando Warriors, 35-24, in Bealeton during the quarterfinals of the Class 4A North Region tournament.

That "film" was a recording of Liberty's previous game against the Warriors – a 28-14 Eagles win. During the Oct. 3 game, Sherando running back LeeQuan Johnson rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown, and he added 90 receiving yards with a touchdown.

"We were just laughing in the film room," Eagles defensive end Morgan Estep said of watching Johnson's performance.

Sherando's offense "would shift and we would shift the opposite direction," he said. "We would shift the wrong way. I don't know what we were doing, but we got it straightened out."

To say the least.

Liberty held Johnson to just one reception for seven yards Friday, and the Northwestern District Offensive Player of the Year had only 37 yards on 16 carries. In fact, the Warriors finished with only 48 rushing yards against the Eagles after amassing 254 last weekend during a 48-0 win over James Wood.

"We changed the entire front on the defense," Eagles defensive tackle Michael Wigglesworth said. "Our defense, we've got it on lock."

Estep had three of the Eagles' four sacks, and Liberty intercepted a pass and contributed to five Sherando fumbles.

That defensive unit will get another test next weekend in the region semifinals when the third-seeded Eagles (11-1) travel to play No. 2 Jefferson Forest (12-0), which beat No. 7 Eastern View (9-2) in a shootout during the quarterfinals, 63-55.

"We've played really well on the road," Liberty coach Sean Finnerty said. "I think our kids will be ready to play."

The winner of that semifinal game will qualify for the four-team 4A state tournament.

"We've got the mentality to go all the way," Wigglesworth said. "We've just got to keep working at it."

Sherando coach Bill Hall can envision the Eagles continuing to win.

"I like their chances moving forward," said Hall, whose sixth-seeded Warriors finished with a 9-3 record.

Liberty entered Friday having lost to Sherando in six of their past eight match-ups, but history didn't hinder the Eagles this time. They took a surprising 28-0 lead with less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter as their defensive line and offensive line appeared to overwhelm the Warriors at times.

Liberty out-gained Sherando, 252-53, in total yardage during the first half and made that 406-67 before the Warriors finally put together a drive to score with 4.8 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

"I think that's a pretty good argument to say that's the best three quarters of football" by Liberty this season, Finnerty said. "Because that's an excellent Sherando team, and we have firm control of the game."

The Warriors were good enough last season to knock Liberty out of the playoffs with a 34-12 win during the region quarterfinals.

"Being as good as they usually are in the playoffs … I wasn't expecting us to be leading like we were," Eagles wide receiver Anthony Spagnoletti said of Friday's game. "It's a good thing we were."

Indeed. The Warriors scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to give Liberty a late scare.

Trailing 28-0 with 1 minute, 57 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Hall finally abandoned his run-first game plan. Sherando quarterback Patrick Minteer began peppering the edges of the field with passes to his receivers using a no-huddle spread offense.

As a result, the Warriors scored 24 points in less than three minutes with a pair of touchdown passes, a rushing touchdown, a two-point conversion pass and a special teams safety.

"When we went no-huddle, I think it kind of established a rhythm for us," Hall said. "Maybe I should have gone to it the whole game. … In hindsight, yeah, no question, without a doubt."

With a 28-0 lead, Finnerty and the Eagles felt comfortable allowing the Warriors to complete short passes and quickly run out of bounds to stop the clock. Sherando, however, also sprinkled in some long pass plays.

"We had the score on our side, so we played 'Bend, bend, bend,'" Finnerty said. "If I wouldn't have gotten so aggressive with a couple pressures [they wouldn't have gotten] the two big pass plays."

After Minteer (212 yards on 21-for-25 passing) ran for a 3-yard touchdown with 4.8 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Liberty responded with a 60-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Walters to Spagnoletti, giving the Eagles a 35-7 lead. Sherando, however, scored again with 9:40 remaining in the fourth quarter on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Minteer to Dylan Rivers (74 yards on 10 receptions).

The Warriors' special teams unit then produced a safety on the ensuing kickoff. Liberty return man Martin Parker fielded the ball at the 1-yard line and dipped back into the end zone, where the Warriors tackled him to narrow their deficit to 35-16.

"I got a little nervous after the safety," said Finnerty, whose team then gave the ball back to Sherando with a free kick.

Only 30 seconds after the safety, the Warriors scored again on a 53-yard touchdown pass from Minteer to Adam Whitacre. Minteer used a pump fake as one of his receivers set up for a bubble screen. Liberty's defensive backs bit on the fake, leaving Whitacre wide open deep down the field.

An ensuing two-point conversion narrowed Liberty's lead to 35-24 with 9:07 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Eagles then burned only 2:40 off the clock before turning the ball over on downs.

Soon after, Sherando drove to Liberty's 11-yard line, but the Eagles' defense finally rallied to force a 36-yard field goal attempt. A ball kicked by Rhett Morris bounced off the crossbar with 2:38 left in the fourth, allowing the Eagles to finally exhale.

"Probably the most nervous that I've been all season," Spagnoletti said of Sherando's late rally. "Just to know that if you lose there's no next week, and there's no next year with me being a senior.

"But we did exactly what we're known for – that's keeping composure," he said. "We started getting kind of argumentative, but then we just kind of calmed down. … That's how we win big games."

It also helps to get 139 yards from a wide receiver. Spagnoletti produced that on five receptions.

"I know this is probably going to be my last home game here, so it was like, 'I want to go out with a bang,'" he said. "Every pass that was thrown to me I tried to catch and score."

Spagnoletti seemed to find an open spot in Sherando zone defense every time Walters dropped back to pass.

"I have to say it's my speed, and Coach G is the man with his Xs and Os," Spagnoletti said of offensive coordinator Scott Girolmo. "His play calling. The way he sets stuff up is perfect."

For example, Spagnoletti scored on that 60-yard touchdown pass from Walters when the Eagles used play-action out of a tight, heavy formation, in which all 11 Liberty players seemingly rubbed shoulders at the line of scrimmage. Spagnoletti broke out of the scrum and ran a post route to the left while all of Sherando's defenders followed Walters as the quarterback rolled out to the right.

The Warriors paid attention to Walters' movements for good reason. He ran for 305 yards and three touchdowns when Liberty beat Sherando on Oct. 3.

"The quarterback is very dynamic," Hall said. "He's what makes them go."

Walters' throwing prowess often lives in the shadow of his running ability and his teammates' talents as rushers. On Friday, for example, Parker ran for 134 yards and a touchdown on nine carries while T.J. Hogan had 60 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, Brent Smith had 52 yards on 10 carries and Hakeem Johnson had a 6-yard touchdown run to go with 44 yards on three receptions.

Walters had 58 yards and a touchdown on 10 rushes, but he also threw for 216 yards on 11-for-15 passing.

"Of course people are going to doubt him knowing Liberty as a run-heavy team," Spagnoletti said. "They sleep on our passing game. As you can see, it works when it needs to."

"It doesn't surprise me," Estep said. "Aaron's the most athletic person I've ever met in my life, and I can say that honestly."

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