Rivalry games are often passionate, distracting and fun at the same time.
Friday’s Kettle Run-Liberty football matchup started out with an emotional reality check on a personal level as leukemia-stricken Kettle Run student Kaleb Leigh addressed the crowd, telling them he’s facing intense out-of-town treatment for six to eight weeks.
“With your support it helps me get through it,” Leigh said into a microphone at midfield, surrounded by family and both school's bands.
Besides zeal for Leigh’s plight, there was frenzied action on the field as both teams weathered some ups and downs before visiting Liberty prevailed, 40-29.
For 0-5 Kettle Run, it was an encouraging loss, if there is such a thing.
Both new quarterbacks Peyton Mehaffey and Elijah Chumley played well, running backs Darian Lambert and Brandon Strickland churned out hard yards and sophomore receiver Jacob Robinson continued his progress as an eye-opening breakout star.
Defensively the Cougars harassed Eagle quarterback Dylan Bailey into a fairly rough night, and held the Liberty offense in check with their huge defensive line.
“There were a lot of positives tonight,” said coach Charlie Porterfield, who was particularly impressed with Robinson, who caught eight passes for 88 yards and a 30-yard TD.
But in the end, Liberty avenged last year’s loss to the Cougars by winning a relatively comfortable game. The Eagles, who now lead the series 10-4, built an early lead, then weathered Kettle Run’s second quarter comeback with three straight second half touchdowns.
While it wasn’t the clinical, clean blowout victory coach Travis Buzzo hoped to see, his troops are 5-0 heading into a huge road test at Sherando (3-2) on Oct. 11.
“We started fast but it was defense and special teams that started fast. The offense kind of lagged,” said Buzzo. “They were bringing six, seven on a couple of plays. Kettle Run was playing well. We’d get some receivers slightly open and the timing was off a little bit.”
Liberty quarterback Ryan Bailey finished 7-for-18 for 136 yards.
The game began on a promising note for Kettle Run as Liberty fumbled the opening kickoff and took over on the Eagles’ 34-yard line. Four runs by Strickland and two by quarterback Mehaffey brought the Cougars to the LHS 8-yard line, where the Cougars attempted a 25-yard field goal.
Liberty star Tre’Von White ruined that play by roaring in from the left side, going horizontal to block the kick, then picking up the ball and racing 85 yards the other way for a touchdown. Mason Gay’s two-point run gave Liberty an 8-0 lead with 7:37 left in the quarter.
“It was a killer. It takes the wind out of your sails,” said Porterfield. “We had a good drive and expect to come away with three and we give them eight.”
The defensive score was just another example of how White has emerged as the Eagles’ signature star and MVP.
He caught five passes for 98 yards, completed a pass as a punter, had the defensive “scoop and score” TD to get the Eagles rolling, and added a two-point conversion catch.
Told he’s become Liberty’s version of NFL star like Odell Beckham Jr., White smiled. “I’m just playing my role and executing,” he said.
On his “scoop and score” TD, White gave teammate Keegan Shipe and assistant coach Fred Harris props: “I told Keegan, “If you hit the end guy it will give me a free shot. 'Can you hit him?’”
White said they practiced that block all week, but that he never dove. “Coach Fred said, ‘If you dive, you’re gonna block it.’ So I dove and I blocked it and scored,” White said.
Liberty took a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter on another highlight reel play as cornerback A.J. Johnson picked off a pass near midfield and returned it 55 yards for a score.
Johnson said he recognized the route. “All game they were doing comeback. I saw that ball out, I read it and got it,” he said. “I thought I was getting hauled (down from behind), I used my speed.”
The Eagles made it 20-0 on a 1-yard run by Fred Harris with 6:29 left before halftime. It was Liberty’s best (and only) TD drive of the half as they went 64 yards in 14 plays.
The drive featured the first pass in White’s life, a 17-yard completion to Bryan Barnes off a fake punt. “It was supposed to be rollout to the right. I cut back and saw Bryan open so I threw it to him. We installed it this week. I thought it was underthown,” he said.
Kettle Run showed remarkable resolve with two TDs before halftime to make it 20-14.
A 72-yard drive culminated in Elijah Chumley’s 1-yard QB sneak and a Will Landis extra point kick to make it 20-7 with 1:08 left in the half.
With little time left before intermission, the Cougars took advantage of two Liberty penalties to force a Liberty punt from the end zone, then took over at the LHS 30 with 29 seconds.
On first down, Chumley dropped a textbook throw into the hands of Robinson for a 30-yard TD in the back of the end zone.
Suddenly it was a whole new game at 20-14 after Landis’ kick. “The first half did not end well. We should not have given up that last score,” said Liberty’s Buzzo.
Five more TDs were scored in the second half and Liberty essentially put the game away by scoring three in a row, two on runs by Gay.
Gay had a 31-yard TD run to open the third quarter and a 1-yard TD run early in the fourth, followed by a 2-point reception by White to make it 34-14.
Later Liberty backup quarterback Samuel Marouse hit Shipe on a precise 8-yard crossing route to make it 40-14 with 3:54 left.
Kettle Run scored the final 15 points of the game on an 80-yard kickoff return by A.J. WIlliams and 2-yard run by Chumley.
Despite the loss, the game gave Kettle Run a blueprint for victory the rest of this year as quarterbacks Mehaffey (who left the game after being stepped on) and Chumley played solidly, Strickland and Darian Lambert ran hard, and Robinson caught nearly everything thrown his way.
Considering his team's offensive struggles, Porterfield liked what he saw, especially from Robinson, who does not have a football background.
“We got him out and he’s rolling. He’s a pretty special for us. He’s caught on as well as anybody ever has. He has good size, great hands, runs good routes, and he’s competitive,” Porterfield said.
He also praised both QBs, noting that Mehaffey got the most practice reps as starter: “Elijah showed poise. For him to jump in there like that was impressive.”
Mehaffey finished 6-for-7 for 48 yards and the interception. Chumley was 7-for-12 for 76 yards. Lambert ran 14 times for 82 yards and Strickland 16 times or 52 yards.
Next up for the Cougars is a matchup with Fauquier (2-3). Kettle Run has won six straight over the Falcons. Fauquier's last win in the rivalry was 17-10 in 2012.
Liberty, meanwhile, is hoping to play a little better in their showdown matchup at Sherando, which rolled over the Eagles 55-21 in 2018.
Although he was one of the stars of the game, White said the somewhat subpar passing numbers were his fault, and he promises better chemistry with Bailey against Sherando.
"I take all responsibility for that one because in practice it was one of my worst practices. I wasn’t really focused," said White.
Johnson said this is a week when the players have to concentrate. "In film room we can't be talking," he said.