Liberty Lions football

Liberty High School senior, Jack Hodgson, stretches for a few extra inches to gain a first down in the second quarter of the Lions 24-21 victory over the Tracy Bulldogs in Brentwood, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. (Tony Kukulich/ThePress)

The Liberty High School football team used three touchdowns from Willie Williams last Saturday to build a 23-0 lead over Amador Valley High early in the third quarter en route to a 33-14 final score and the first playoff victory in school history.

Williams electrified the home crowd with a 62-yard kickoff return, scoring just 13 seconds after the Lions had gotten on the board with a safety. That gave Liberty a 9-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.  The Lions extended their lead to 16-0 with 2:21 remaining in the second quarter when Williams took a punt back 60 yards for another score.  

Williams’ two returns for scores in the first half allowed the Lions to enjoy a 16-point halftime advantage playing in front of a postseason home crowd for the first time ever. With the two returns and the safety on defense, Liberty was able to hold the advantage despite only gaining 78 yards offensively in the first two quarters. 

“We didn’t move the ball as well as we would have liked in the first half,” said Liberty Head Coach Jeff Walters.“But it just reinforces what we always teach to our players, that good things will happen if we play solid defense and are excellent on special teams.”

Williams’ third score of the night, a 38-yard catch-and-run off a bubble screen from senior quarterback Joseph Tolentino, came with 9:01 remaining in the third quarter. Williams eluded and seemingly shrugged off multiple Amador Valley defenders en route to the end zone. The Dons found some offensive fight on their next drive, however.

After being held to 18 yards on nine carries by the Lions’ defense in the first half, Amador Valley tailback Ledre McCullough broke loose on his first carry of the second half, going off-tackle for a 78-yard touchdown, and cutting the lead to 23-7. Liberty then responded with one of its best drives of the game, chewing up nearly seven minutes off the clock and culminating with a 22-yard field goal from Stirling Strong.

Amador Valley cut into the Lions’ lead once more when McCullough scored from three yards out with 6:17 remaining in the game. The Dons’ Collin Miller then recovered a perfect onside kick by Omid Eibagi, and Amador Valley was threatening to make it a one-score game midway through the fourth quarter. Liberty’s defense responded with one of its two biggest stops of the night, however, giving the ball back to the offense up 26-14 with four minutes remaining in the game. Back in the second quarter, the Lions’ defense had turned back the Amador Valley offense with a goal-line stand, including a fourth-down stop from 1-yard line.

Liberty put the game away for good with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Tolentino to senior receiver Anthony Leslie with 2:56 left in the game. Tolentino finished the night with 168 yards and two touchdowns passing, while Leslie was the Lions’ leading receiver with four catches for 37 yards.

With the win, Liberty advanced to the North Coast Section Division I quarterfinals, and will play at California High School on Saturday, Nov. 22 in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. The Grizzlies advanced by defeating Heritage, 45-13.

“We know it will be a hard-fought battle this week against a very physical football team,” said Walters.  “I have a ton of respect for (Cal head coach Eric Billeci) and the way he runs that program. They do things the right way and we will have to play our best.”