Warriors face Liberty in football playoffs

Posted: November 9, 2012

STEPHENS CITY — The Liberty football team certainly didn’t have to alter its offensive look following its loss to Sherando on Oct. 19, but it clearly knew it couldn’t afford a repeat performance if it hoped to make much of a postseason run.

The Eagles (6-4) — seeded No. 5 in the Region II, Division 4 playoffs — come into tonight’s game at 7 against No. 4 Sherando (6-4) at Arrowhead Stadium bursting with confidence after an impressive 42-28 victory over Fauquier, which earned Liberty a share of the Evergreen District championship.

Against Sherando, Liberty had just 149 yards of total offense in its 14-6 loss in Stephens City, including just 76 rushing yards on 32 carries.

But the Eagles have since rolled to two straight wins, and the win over Fauquier showed that with the right approach, senior Aristotle Howard can make some noise.

The 5-foot-7, 185-pound running back compiled 281 yards and four touchdowns on 23 carries against the Falcons, this after having picked up just 610 yards and seven touchdowns through the first nine games. That stretch included a 28-yard, one-touchdown effort against the Warriors on 11 carries.

“When we played them, we executed really well on defense,” Sherando coach Bill Hall said. “Our run fits were there, and we didn’t give up the big play.

“But since we played them they’ve changed things up a little bit. They were doing a lot of zone stuff, but now they’re doing a lot of power and dive-option schemes. You have to give them credit for adjusting, because they’re playing well.”

Liberty coach Sean Finnerty said while some different play calls have helped his team, the biggest reason for last week’s performance was his players’ execution.

“We were a lot better up front, and that’s what we need to be successful,” said Finnerty, whose team is also led by senior quarterback Tyler Longerbeam (68 of 129 for 1,060 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions).

Of course, as good as Liberty’s rushing attack was against Fauquier, Sherando’s overall defense was just as spectacular against Millbrook.

The Warriors surrendered just 229 yards, and the Pioneers had just 165 yards of total offense before launching a touchdown drive with seven seconds left that cut Sherando’s lead to 33-14. Millbrook came into that game averaging 379 yards of offense per game.

Of course, the Eagles aren’t the only ones who have changed on offense in the last three weeks. Though senior running back Taylor Loudan threw the ball twice against Liberty, the following week’s game against Skyline was the first in which Loudan started to take the majority of snaps from center.

Loudan — The Northwestern District Offensive Player of the Year — threw 13 times for 104 yards and a touchdown at the Hawks, but there was no need to take to the air as much last week.

With sophomore Josh Ojo — who was the first to step in for Reid Entsminger at quarterback after he broke his collarbone against Handley on Oct. 13 — running in motion in the backfield, Millbrook had no answer for Loudan when he’d take the snap, spin, and make his way forward.

Loudan (1,471 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns) finished with 277 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries, and junior fullback George Aston provided a strong power component, adding 154 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries after he had 155 yards coming into the game.

Finnerty said Sherando’s altered offensive approach is something his team is prepared to defend, and the bottom line is that no matter what look the Warriors give they know they have to slow down Sherando’s running game to be successful. The Eagles — led by Evergreen District Defensive Player of the Year Wyatt Teller (95.5 tackles, 10.5 sacks) — did hold Sherando to 121 rushing yards in the first matchup.

In a game between two teams as evenly matched as Sherando and Liberty, both coaches said field position could be huge. Of the Eagles’ 12 possessions, five started either at the 50 or in Sherando territory, but Liberty could only take advantage with a score once.

The fact that the Warriors could withstand that disadvantage is a big part of why they find themselves hosting a playoff game tonight.

“I just think our kids have done a good job of being resilient,” Hall said. “When we’ve been hit with adversity, we’ve just been able to move on. We’re just excited about hosting a playoff game, and we’re looking forward to showing what we can do.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at  rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1