Just a week after the fifth-seeded Lions defeated Amador Valley 33-14 for their first playoff win in school history, Liberty surrendered a 10-point third-quarter lead to the Grizzlies.
California will play top-seed De La Salle in the semifinals on Nov. 28, the fourth time California has reached the round of four in the last five years.
California senior Ryan Groleau, who finished with six catches for 132 yards and a key interception, played a key role in denying Liberty ( 9-3) its first 10-win season in school history.
Groleau’s 48-yard touchdown with 3:48 left in the third quarter cut California’s deficit to 24-21, keying the start of the Grizzlies’ comeback.
After senior quarterback Jacob Wooldridge scored on a 12-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter to put the Grizzlies on top for good at 28-24, Groleau reemerged with an interception with 5 minutes left that sealed the Lions’ fate. About 2 minutes later, California senior Simi Hingano scored on an 8-yard run to put California on top 35-24 with 2:52 left in the game. Hingano, who finished with 11 carries for 63 yards, combined with Justin Locklear (128 yards on nine carries) to lead the Grizzlies’ rushing attack.
“They worked hard and pushed us a little bit in the third quarter,” said Liberty Head Coach Jeff Walters. “We needed to make a couple more adjustments and they came up on the right end.”
For most of three quarters, it appeared Liberty had a shot at upsetting California in the first meeting between the two schools.
Liberty wide receiver Willie Williams, who finished with 116 yards receiving and 50 rushing, scored on an 80-yard catch-and-run on the game’s opening play to give Liberty an early 7-0 lead.
After California answered Liberty’s opening blow with a touchdown of its own, Liberty senior Matavai Canady scored a 2-yard touchdown late in the first quarter to put Liberty on top 14-7.
A 37-yard field goal by Liberty’s Stirling Strong with 9:18 left in the second quarter extended the Lions’ lead to 17-7.
Peter Farina’s 9-yard touchdown just prior to halftime pulled California within 17-14 at the intermission.
Williams put the Lions ahead at 24-14 on a 4-yard touchdown with 5:40 left in the third quarter, but that was the last time the Lions scored in the game.
The Lions’ loss ended one of the best seasons for the squad in school history. Liberty won its first playoff game ever this year to cap a nine-win season, just one short of a team record of 10. The Lions’ 8-2 regular season with a 3-2 mark in league play, including their first win over rival Freedom since 2005, was good enough to end the season second in the league standings behind Pittsburg.
“It’s going to go down as maybe one of the biggest seasons in Liberty High School history, and that is definitely something to take your hat off about,” Walters said.
As many Liberty players left the field visibly upset after the loss, senior Nathan Sharma smiled as he reflected on the year.
“We had a really fun season,” he said. “It meant a lot coming out here my senior year and getting nine wins. We couldn’t have asked for more.”
Added senior wide receiver Anthony Leslie, “From the beginning of the season, nobody expected us to come this far. Since the beginning, we stuck as a team and came together. We made history as the first team ever to win a playoff game. It’s great.”
Correspondent Nate Smith contributed to this report.