Liberty is living with the real possibility that, at 8-2, it could be sitting at home next Friday instead of playing in its first-ever playoff game.
It would dampen the high of a 62-28 win over Lake Nona Friday, considering the Chargers treated it like a do-or-die playoff game and scored eight touchdowns and 56 points in the second and third quarters.
But the reality is, Liberty (7-2), who earned second place in District 7A-5 with the win, still sits in 10th place (37.22 points/game) Region 2, two places out of a wild card berth — and oddly enough behind Lake Nona (6-3), which played a slate of teams with better records.
And it won’t improve much Friday, when the Chargers host winless Lake Region, with an expected win earning them just 35 points.
“When we lost to Harmony (on Sept. 14), we kind’ve knew that we’d have to win them all to have a chance, so yeah, this was a playoff game,” LHS Coach Brandon Pennington said.
Quarterback Jaelen Ray put the team on his big shoulders and ran for three touchdowns and passed for four more as Liberty turned a 14-0 deficit early in the second quarter into a 56-28 lead through three. Ray ran 13 times for 77 yards and threw for 215 on 14-of-21 passing.
The whole game likely shifted on one play. The Lions led 14-8 and were driving in the second quarter when Tyrece Frater hit quarterback Michael Kern, forcing a fumble that Sterley St. Felix scooped and took 25 yards for a score.
The teams traded scores through the end of the half and Lake Nona took a 28-26 lead into the break, but the Liberty defense clamped down after that. The Lions and their aerial attack behind Wake Forest signee Michael Kern would not score in the second half while the Chargers took to the air themselves. Ray connected with Elijah Stefanici from 45 yards to open the half then would find La’Randy Swint (seven catches, 139 yards) on TD passes of 22, 10 and 70 yards in less than 10 minutes of clock time to crack open the lead. Meanwhile, Liberty’s defense swarmed Kern, sacking him six times and forcing four fumbles and recovering two.
Gateway’s hopes of returning to the playoffs may have been deep-sixed with a gut-wrenching 34-28 loss to Titusville Astronaut last week.
Trailing 34-28, the Panthers (4-5) reached the War Eagles’ 1-yard line, but Phillip Bangura, looking to score his fourth touchdown of the night, was ruled to have been stood up short of the goal line.
“The ending haunts me even this week,” GHS Coach Marlin Roberts said. “A small series of mistakes and things that didn’t go our way cost us this one, and it may be what keeps us out of the playoffs.”
All that may be on the line for Gateway Friday at Mount Dora (5-4), a team in need of a win itself to get into the Class 4A playoffs, is a .500 season, which would still defy Roberts’ expectations.
“I was worried that with much of our depth lost (to Tohopekaliga’s opening) we’d only find a couple of wins, but these kids just dig deep and when I think they can’t anymore they dig deeper,” he said.
Senior quarterback Maurice Adams may only get one more game to play, but thought he’d get a playoff game in two weeks when he scored on a 24-yard run to break a tie and life Gateway to a 28-20 lead late in the third quarter.
Astronaut (8-1) found time to score in the third quarter, and then Jaiden Dollard (17 carries, 188 yards) score from 16 yards out to make it 34-28 with 5:34 left in the game.