Liberty football comes up clutch late, downs Sunset second round
Three minutes and 53 seconds on the clock is an eternity for an explosive offense like Liberty's.
The Falcons have too many different options, too many slippery playmakers, too deep of a cache of weapons to subdue for long, especially late in an Arena League-like playoff game of can-you-top-this.
With 3:53 left in the fourth quarter, Sunset took a 44-43 advantage over Liberty in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs — the seventh lead change in a wild oscillating affair of offensive firepower. Staring at a must-score drive to have a shot at the quarterfinals, Brad Norman, Bryan Bafaro, Aidan Maloney and Marquis Brown barreled 80 yards in two-and-a-half minutes, culminating the march with a Cole Smith three-yard touchdown run to reclaim a 49-44 lead. Norman linked up with Brown on the two-point try to go up 51-44.
Sunset quarterback Callum Craig and the Apollos valiantly drove the ball down to Falcon 28-yard line with a minute to go. Needing a touchdown to send the game to overtime, Craig tried to go to the end zone with a deep pass but Maloney ranged over from the middle of the field, plucked the interception and took a knee in the paint for the game-sealing pick. Liberty, who just moved up to the Class 6A classification two years ago, will play defending state champion Clackamas in the quarterfinals next Friday.
"It shows a lot about the character of this team, never getting down, never thinking we were going to lose," Maloney said. "It was a great team win from that aspect. Sunset is a great team. We knew it was going to be a dogfight coming in the whole time. But we know nobody can stop our offense except us."
"We just stuck to who we are and stayed true to ourselves," Norman said. "We know we're a fast offense and it doesn't take four minutes to get down the field. We just know it takes a couple of big plays and people doing their jobs to get it in the end zone. It's a blessing to represent our school like this. We're just so happy to do this for our coach (Eric Mahlum), our classmates and our peers. It's just so awesome."
Sunset reached the second round of the playoffs for the first time in four years, finished second in the Metro League for the second straight year with a 4-1 mark and set a new benchmark for the Apollo program moving forward.
"These are my guys and to raise the bar and make the expectation higher for the upcoming players with them is awesome," Craig said. "We were just all really tight. From seniors to sophomores we all hang out with each other. We're all around each other and I think that really brought us together. We played for each other and weren't so much playing for ourselves."
From getting routed on opening day by Tigard through their final stopping point, Sunset might have improved more than any team at the 6A level. That progression began with Craig, who developed from a rookie starting signal caller into a first-team all-Metro selection as a junior. He helped lead a senior-heavy group that took the Apollos to the next level and spun the program ahead.
"I feel like people found their place and excelled at what they were doing," Craig said. "We found a rhythm, which you could see. The great thing about football is there's adversity and adversity brings you together. That's what we did. We fell on each other when times got rough. This was the greatest team to be a part of it. It just sucks when it has to end like this."
Midway through the second quarter, it seemed like Sunset was well on its way to a long-awaited quarterfinal berth. The Apollos were in complete command midway, converting third and longs and crucial fourth downs. Craig found guys wide open all over the lot and the offensive line ushered Kylie Saigon and Kadin Williams to daylight. Nyembo was awesome, catching a 21-yard touchdown pass and taking home a 49-yard pick-six just two plays later that gave Sunset a 28-8 lead with 6:47 to go in the second quarter. Most importantly, Sunset limited Liberty, a team that scored at least 34 points nine times this season, to just one touchdown in the first 18 minutes. The key cogs like Williams, Nyembo, Hunter Newcomb, Taye Courtney Gustavo Mendez and Ika Nguamo stepped up in their biggest game to date.
"We just did what we practiced all week and were playing for each other," Craig said. "The great thing about football is you don't know what is going to happen. You just have a job to do and you're doing it for the boys out there. We weren't worried about (Liberty), but what we could do together."
Momentum, such an intangible notion, was authentic for both sides. Trailing 8-0 in the first quarter, Sunset reeled off 28 straight points to go up 28-8. Liberty returned the favor with 21 points from the 6:47 mark in the second quarter through its first drive of the third when Norman scampered to the house for a 16-yard score that reclaimed a 29-28 Falcon lead. After Neyembo's pick-six, the Falcons answered with a Maloney 42-touchdown run, a fourth down stop on defense, and a 21-yard touchdown pass from Norman to Brown to pull within a score at the break.
"We're never down on our teammates, never down on our friends because we're family and you can't get mad at family," Norman said.
With Liberty's offense, the Falcons are never out of any game. No lead is safe, no lead too insurmountable, especially with enough time left on the clock. Brown, Maloney, Bafaro, Norman are all game-changing talents who can turn a contest on a single play.
"It's hard to cover six fast guys that love to run with five huge guys up front that love to block," Maloney said. "Those summer workouts, conditioning all of the time, really paid off. There are just so many options to each play. I love thinking about the job I have to do and reading everybody on the field. It's like a puzzle."
Sunset reclaimed a 31-29 lead in the third off a Hayden Skiba field goal. But on Liberty's next drive, Bafaro took an option pitch from Norman, broke two tackles with sheer brute force and willpower, busted out to the perimeter and raced down the sideline for the 41-yard score. The burly senior back added the two-point try to reclaim a 37-31 lead for Liberty with 3:16 left. And after a Falcon stop, Norman took a quarterback read option behind left tackle Diego Rodriguez and a pulling center Jarret Boyce into the end zone for a 10-yard score that extended Liberty's lead to 44-31 with 11:28 to go in the fourth quarter.
"We played our game," Maloney said. "We wanted to start going faster in the second half and knew it was going to pay off."
Bafaro ran like a monster in the second half, Brown was the highlight reel pass catcher who also snatched a pick and Maloney simply made big plays everywhere: catching the ball, toting the rock or in the kicking game. Norman might have been the biggest nuisance of all. The slithery signal caller ran Liberty's super-charged, shotgun Veer formation to a tee, cutting through holes created by the Falcon offensive line, dodging Sunset's gritty front seven, extending plays with his long legs and firing off ropes to areas only where his Falcon receivers could catch the ball. His style was pure sandlot, which makes sense considering the senior used to play football out on the street with his brothers and their friends who were three or four years older than him growing up.
"I learned the best way to not get hurt is to not get tackled and do whatever you need to do to not get tackled," Norman said with a smile. "That's what I try to do out here. When you're out in open space, it's you and the guy across from you one-on-one. The only difference between that and street football is you're in pads and there are fields and fans."
In a game where points and yards were aplenty, Sunset wasn't about to let its foot off the gas. Craig linked up with Nick Niedermeyer for two catches of 25 yards or more and Williams polished off the quick three-minute drive with a 13-yard touchdown run, his third of the game, to bring Sunset within 43-38 with 8:51 remaining. Then, on 4 and 11 from the Sunset 31, Norman tried to go up top to Brown in the end zone, but Sunset junior defensive back Antonio Hernandez played perfect coverage and knocked the ball down to turn the ball over on downs with 5:32 left in the fourth.
Craig and company flipped the stop into a score, sprinting 77 yards in just six plays with two more huge chunk passes to Niedermeyer and the five-yard touchdown run from Nyembo that gave Sunset its final lead of the night, 44-43.
The Falcons, a team that threw its seniors to the wolves as sophomores and juniors to gain valuable varsity experience, didn't blink. Rather, they handed the ball to Bafaro, who ripped off runs 29, 1, and 34 yards on the game-winning drive, sprinkled in with chunk gains from Maloney and Norman to move the ball into the red zone. Smith scored his three-yard touchdown run off the option give from Norman. And on the two-point try, Norman rolled right, couldn't find anyone open, reversed course to his left to buy time, found a still moving Brown and hit him in the back of the end zone for the toe-tapping two-point try to make a one score game, 51-44. Brown, a tall, sinewy pass catcher with a huge catch radius and big-time athleticism was Norman's go-to in the passing game.
"I try to make him look good, so he can get his junior highlight tape going," Norman said with a laugh. "I'm just excited for him next year, hopefully, he'll get some (college scholarship) offers. He's great. He loves playing football and he's just a great receiver to throw to."'
Liberty is now 9-2 overall while Sunset finished its season 7-3 as the No. 10 team in the 6A bracket.