LaBrae staves off Liberty upset bid, 41-34
LIBERTY — It seemed like destiny that the team to have the ball last would win Friday night’s bout between Liberty and LaBrae, but it was a defensive play that ended up making the difference as LaBrae took a 41-34 victory in Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference Grey Tier play.
Tied at 34 and following a goal line fumble, Liberty had driven from its own 1-yard-line to the LaBrae 12 with 40 seconds to go.
Out of a Leopard timeout, quarterback D.C. Ferrell scrambled to his right as LaBrae’s Stephen Hemberger and Tre’Von Drake were in hot pursuit. The duo got ahold of Ferrell, and as he was spun to the ground, the ball was knocked loose.
LaBrae’s Cameron Rabel scooped the fumble and raced 75 yards for the game-winning touchdown, sinking Liberty’s hopes of an upset and allowing the Vikings to escape the Leopards’ lair with a victory.
“Steven Hemberger got the sack, all I did was finish it and picked the ball up,” Rabel said. “All I was thinking was don’t let up until I hit the end zone.”
The senior described the game as a battle, and added, “I thought we could’ve played a lot better than we did, and I wish we would’ve. But we came out with a win, and that’s all I can ask for.”
The Vikings (8-1, 5-1) got all they could handle out of a tough-nosed Liberty (5-4, 3-2) squad that could’ve used the win to perhaps seal the deal on a playoff berth. No team led by more than seven points during the contest, and LaBrae found itself down a score in the second half.
“We thought this was going to be a very difficult week,” LaBrae head coach John Armeni said. “We thought Liberty was a dangerous football team. … So we thought this would be tight, and it was.”
He added, “Our kids made some plays down the stretch.”
The game got off to an inauspicious start, as both squads fumbled on their first plays from scrimmage. Then, the scoring opened up as the teams traded scores until halftime.
LaBrae grabbed a 21-14 lead heading into the intermission, courtesy of three touchdowns from Aidan Stephens in the first half and a goal-line stand to end the second quarter. Stephens plunged in on rushes for 3 and 5 yards and added an 80-yard house call on a kickoff.
Stephens finished the night with 152 yards and three rushing touchdowns on 20 carries, and added 57 yards in the air.
“He was dragging guys all over the field. He threw us on his back, literally,” Armeni said. “He’s our guy, he’s our leader, he’s our captain. In big moments, you need guys to make big plays. He did that tonight.”
Meanwhile, the Viking defense made its stand, as it held the Leopards out of the end zone on four consecutive plays to end the half. Liberty handed the ball twice to Donte Venters and twice to La’Breilyn Wilson, but the duo was stymied just shy of paydirt.
Out of the intermission, however, the Leopards came out swinging. Liberty took its first lead of the evening in the third quarter, courtesy of a pair of Ferrell touchdown passes to Chris Cunningham.
Cunningham finished with seven receptions for 160 yards and two touchdowns, while Ferrell completed 25 of 35 passes for 317 yards and those same two scores.
Liberty head coach Joe Simon was complimentary of both players. Of Ferrell, he said, “His ability to read the defense was phenomenal tonight; that’s the best he’s played from that perspective. … For a freshman to do that is a really great sign. I wish he would’ve thrown the ball away there at the end, but he’s a freshman just trying to make a play. That stuff happens, and I’m not going to blame him, because he played his butt off.”
Of Cunningham, he added, “He’s a phenomenal guy after the catch. He makes people miss, and he’s a very savvy football player. He doesn’t look like he’s going that fast, and then he’s by you.”
After Cunningham’s second score, LaBrae circled the wagons to regain control. Devin Carter hit paydirt from 3 yards out to draw the Vikings to within 28-27, and then after a long snap went over Liberty’s punter’s head, Stephens plunged in on a 1-yard sneak to retake the lead, 34-28.
In the fourth quarter, Venters scored from 7 yards out to tie the game back up, 34-34. Venters finished with 149 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries.
On LaBrae’s ensuing drive, the Vikings marched to the 1-yard-line before the ball was poked out and recovered by the Leopards. After marching to the 12, it seemed they were headed to a breakthrough victory before Rabel’s big return swung the pendulum back the other way.
“It’s heartbreaking; there’s no other way to put it,” Simon said. “Our kids played amazing on so many levels. … You’re driving to win the game, 99 yards if it works out, and I thought D.C. was down, but sometimes it doesn’t go your way. There were a couple breaks that didn’t go our way tonight, and that’s the way the game goes sometimes.”
Now, the Leopards enter the final week of the regular season in search of a much-needed win against Garfield, who won 31-17 over a tough Brookfield squad to continue its undefeated season. The G-Men stand at 9-0 now.
Liberty entered its game with LaBrae sitting at 14th in the Division V, Region 17 standings. The top 16 teams will enter the postseason.
“It means a lot. We might need to win that game to get in, because we’re right on the fringe,” Simon said.
LaBrae, meanwhile, will host 1-8 Campbell Memorial and look to close its regular season out at 9-1.
Armeni concluded, “It definitely wasn’t pretty tonight, but any time you can dig your heels in and beat a good football team on their senior night, it’s never an awful night.”