Liberty High School BVAL

Senior quarterback Ryan Dutt, who passed for 1,723 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, is in a battle for the starting position with rising sophomore Jay ButterfieldPress file photo.

New Liberty head football coach Ryan Partridge, who inherited a team coming off back-to-back 4-6 seasons, will rely on an experienced group of returners at the skill positions to go with a young, but sizable offensive line as the Lions attempt to get back to the playoffs for the first time in three years.

Partridge enters his second season as a head football coach at the high school level, taking over for Jeff Walters, who left Brentwood for the head job at his alma mater – Del Oro-Loomis.  

Walters led the Lions to a 22-21 record during his four years. Partridge, meanwhile, took the reins of a high school program for the first time last fall when he assumed the head position at Livermore.  

In his one season at Livermore, Partridge led the Cowboys to a 5-5 mark during the regular season, their best season since 1999. Livermore then captured a first-round playoff victory.  Now, he will look to build on the success of his first season as a head coach, while capitalizing on the foundation in place at the downtown Brentwood campus.

One thing is for certain – Liberty will have to come out of the gate at a fast pace. An opening game with Sac-Joaquin power Vacaville leaves no room for error, and that game is followed by a visit from San Leandro, a program no doubt still smarting from a one-point loss to the Lions last season. Other nonleague games against Wood-Vacaville, Concord and Tracy each represent challenges before the always tough BVAL slate of games.

Returning players: Senior receiver Zane Hinojosa rewrote Liberty’s record book last year, setting the single-season mark for receiving yards with 795. He is joined at receiver by 6-foot-3 Max Lawrence, who was an all-league defensive back last year after snagging five interceptions.  

The offensive backfield appears equally loaded, with the speedy Kenroy Higgins and junior Tyerell Sturges-Cofer back after gaining valuable experience last fall. The 6-foot-2 Higgins was also the NCS Tri-Valley champion in the 200-meter dash, while Sturges-Cofer ran for 481 yards and 3 scores as a sophomore. Both sides of the ball should also get a boost from junior transfer Sione Vaki, who played fullback and linebacker on Antioch’s varsity as a sophomore last fall.

“I’m excited to work with an athletic, hard-working and receptive group of athletes,” Partridge said. “We have a lot of potential and a lot of players working hard to prove themselves and prepare for success this season.”

Lawrence will perform double duty as receiver and defensive back – joined again by senior cornerback Devon Willis, who started opposite Lawrence last year.

Last year’s starting quarterback, Ryan Dutt, is back for his senior year, but is in a battle for the position with rising sophomore Jay Butterfield, who led the freshmen team to a 9-1 mark last season. Partridge is still waiting to see how both players perform in pads and with live action around them, but has stated that both of them look very strong at this point.

The offensive line will be young, but is led by junior returner Reese Watkins-Nelson, who played defensive end last season.

New players: Adding to the mix in the offensive backfield, aside from Butterfield and Vaki, is junior John Fio, who started on the junior varsity last year and could contribute at both running back and strong safety.

Many of the key new pieces will be up front, including junior Josh McKey, sophomore Peyton Zdroik and a host of other young players fighting for the final two starting positions. At 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds, McKey could be a key cog on the interior of the line. Zdroik, meanwhile, will anchor the line from the center position.

“We’re young up front, but we could average 285 across the line,” Partridge said. “We have a lot of guys competing for spots, and nothing is set in stone at this point.”

While Lawrence and Willis provide experience in the defensive secondary, two other names that could make an impact in 2017 include sophomore Brenden Bell, who will play safety, and junior Jerrin Easter-Williams, who was a midseason call-up from the junior varsity last year.

The linebacker position, meanwhile, is one that will need to grow up in a hurry. Junior Ethan Dumond is one player who can make an impact in his first varsity season and senior Hayden Fordahl could provide veteran leadership despite missing last year with an injury.

Overview: The Lions have been stockpiling talent at the lower levels over the past couple seasons, and coaches around the BVAL continue to mention Liberty as the up-and-coming program. The freshmen and junior varsity teams went a combined 18-1-1 last year, even with a number of sophomores up on the varsity level, which always bodes well for a program looking to combine talent with experience.

The schedule is tough, but some early success could translate into confidence headed toward BVAL play. From there, a big turnaround will be necessary after losing four league games by large margins in 2016. The talent appears to be there, and the enthusiasm is certainly back among the ranks. What remains to be seen is how fast the young line can develop, with the league schedule looming in late September. 

Lions 2017 SCHEDULE

August 25, 7:30 PM @ Vacaville

September 1, 7:00 PM vs. San Leandro

September 8, 7:00 PM @ Wood (Vacaville)

September 15, 7:00 PM vs. Concord

September 22, 7:15 PM vs. Tracy (Homecoming)

September 29, 7:00 PM @ Heritage (Brentwood Bowl)*

October 6, 7:00 PM @ Deer Valley*

October 20, 7:00 PM vs. Antioch* 

October 27, 7:00 PM vs. Pittsburg*

November 3, 7:00 PM @ Freedom (Bell Game)*

*BVAL games