“That’s what I’ve been waiting for all year,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been waiting for. That’s how you play Freedom football right there. I’ll tell you what, if we play the way we played tonight, man, Heritage is in trouble. We hung. We whupped them. A couple of little mistakes here and there and they make big plays – oh well. But you know what, we’ve got to finish the play now. Now we’ve got two winnable games if we play like we did tonight. No reason to put your head down, no reason to be ashamed.”
The reason the coach and his players were accentuating the positive, despite the loss, is that they took it to last year’s league champions in the first half, playing them to a 21-21 draw. This winless team did even better in the first quarter, leading by a touchdown over a team that had nearly knocked off undefeated Deer Valley the week before.
The Pirates scored first on their first possession – a 69-yard scoring drive capped by a six-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Julius Mozee to Robert Jiles. Freedom blocked the extra-point kick to keep it a 6-0 Pittsburg advantage. The Pirates had marched downfield with such ease, mostly thanks to the running of Breon Butler, supplemented with Mozee passes to Jiles, that it looked like it might turn into a blowout from the get-go.
But Freedom’s Kenneth Walker dispelled that notion when he caught the kickoff on the 5, broke through the coverage and ran down the left side for a 95-yard touchdown. Bobby Cook’s kick was good, giving Freedom a 7-6 advantage.
Pittsburg struck right back, however, starting from its own 30, eating up 5, 10 yards at a clip and scoring on a 34-yard Mozee bomb to Jiles in the end zone. The two-point conversion was good, putting Pittsburg up 14-7.
The game was nearly 8 minutes old and Freedom had yet to run a play from scrimmage. Any doubts about the team’s heart were dispelled when they drove 74 yards and scored on quarterback Stephen Rodriguez’s 31-yard run in which it appeared he had been stopped after five yards but somehow managed to break through the tackles and run up the middle into the end zone. A penalty forced Cook to kick the ball 35 yards for the extra point, which proved to be no problem. Freedom had tied it up at 14-all, providing long-suffering Falcon fans with a glimmer of hope.
Suddenly, that glimmer burst into a supernova of hope when Freedom’s Daniel Milina forced a Pirate fumble on a pitch-out on their first play. Then, on Freedom’s first play, Rodriguez threw a 33-yard bomb to a well-covered William Lewis in the end zone, who caught it, hit the ground, rolled over and came up holding the ball high in the air to show he had caught it. Now, with a 21-14 Freedom lead as the first quarter ended, you could almost hear Al Michaels saying, “Do you believe in miracles?”
Alas, it was not to be. Pittsburg tied it up with a little over a minute to go in the half when Jiles intercepted a Rodriguez pass at midfield and ran it back for the TD. The Pirates scored twice more in the third quarter on a 23-yard Mozee pass to Jiles in the left corner of the end zone, and a 42-yard pass play to Terrence Polk. Another Jiles interception returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter resulted in the final points.
In a post-game interview, Hartwig was upbeat. “We played our butt off,” he said. “We played awesome tonight. We came out and we played well. We got big plays, and that’s what we talked about. We executed. The first half pick for a touchdown, (he) just threw the ball a little bit late. Big plays by both teams. Second half they wore on us a little bit. We got banged up. We were down to nobody. But, you know, our kids hung in there and we battled. I’m very proud of our kids. We battled and we played an NCS team to the end. So I’m excited.”
Hartwig is hopeful that his team will win a game, perhaps two, in the final two weeks of the season. “If we play the way we played tonight we can do some good things in the next couple of weeks,” he said. “But we have got to show up and play. And hopefully we can get healthy. We have got two or three key guys banged up. If we get healthy we are rolling now. And we have the confidence the last two weeks that we needed. Our kids played their butt off tonight. Very proud of them.”
Freedom, which may be the best 0-8 team in the history of the BVAL, will travel to Heritage Friday night. Pittsburg, which is now 2-1 in league play and 4-4 overall, will travel to Liberty.