Liberty Lions hold on to beat Monte Vista

Photo by Tony Kukulich

Liberty running back Darrion Bartley looks to stiff-arm a Monte Vista defender during the Lions’ 24-21 win last week. Bartley put the team on his back, carrying the ball 40 times for 199 yards.

Brentwood’s Liberty High School football team may want to start passing out antacids to their fans along with their game tickets.

For the third time in four weeks, the reigning state champion Lions needed to orchestrate some late-game heroics to emerge victorious. This time, defensive lineman James McNorton tipped Monte Vista’s 36-yard attempt at a game-tying field goal, just enough for it to clank off the center of the crossbar, securing undefeated Liberty a 24-21 win on Sept. 13.

“I can’t do any more of these,” said Liberty head coach Ryan Partridge, referring to his team’s three close victories in the first four weeks of the season. “The football gods are with us, in terms of other teams’ special teams not finishing.”

The missed field goal staved off what would have been an unfortunate stroke of bad luck for Lions running back Darrion Bartley (40 carries for 199 yards and a touchdown). Bartley shouldered Liberty’s offense all night before fumbling on his 40th touch — with 1:16 left in the contest — which Monte Vista’s defensive end Chip Menard recovered, setting up the game-tying field goal attempt, five plays later.

“I can’t really put that past me,” Bartley said of his fumble. “I called cramps, but that is not an excuse. I need to go down and get what I can get.”

Nobody, however, was faulting Bartley after the game.

“He’s got so much heart and cares so much about this team,” Partridge said.

The Lions (4-0) have now won their last three games against Oakdale, Clayton Valley Charter and Monte Vista on late defensive stands, now with a blocked extra point in overtime, and McNorton’s apparent tip that altered Nathan Price’s 36-yard game-tying attempt with only eight seconds left for Monte Vista.

“Coach said right before the play, ‘James McNorton, Payton Zdroik: you need to throw your arms up,’” said McNorton. “It was the last play of the game; we are all tired out here. We just all wanted to seal the deal. They are a good team.”

Liberty needed plenty of second half magic to pull out the win over a quality Monte Vista squad (2-1), who led 14-10 at halftime, and were led by wide receivers Nate Rutchena (five catches for 125 yards and all three Mustangs’ touchdowns) and Jacob Oliphant (five receptions for 77 yards).

Trailing by four at halftime, Liberty took a 17-14 lead on Bartley’s 2-yard, fourth-down touchdown, that punctuated a 14-play, 63-yard drive to open the second half.

Fellow Lion Sebastian “Sebby” Lee pushed the lead to 24-14 with a 9-yard scurry, early in the fourth quarter.

But Monte Vista struck back on Rutchena’s 8-yard touchdown to pull within 24-21, with 1:37 remaining.

It appeared Liberty could run out the clock, but Bartley’s valiant effort to battle for more yards — after already appearing to pick up a first down — caused him to cough up the ball on Monte Vista’s 42-yard line, with 1:16 remaining.

A pass interference call on the Lions, combined with Oliphant’s 33-yard catch, set the Mustangs up for an apparent 27-yard field goal, but an ensuing holding call on Monte Vista pushed the team back 10 yards, forcing Price’s 37-yard try that hit the crossbar, after first appearing to hit McNorton’s outstretched arms.

“I believe in my team,” said a relieved Bartley after the game. “We never quit, and they uplift me all the time. I am thankful for the team I have.”

Liberty looks to maintain its perfect record against Cardinal Newman at 6 p.m, Sept. 21, at Liberty’s substitute home field at Freedom High School in Oakley.