Being named to their school's Homecoming Court and scoring the game-winning touchdown in a varsity football game are in the dreams of high school boys everywhere.
Accomplishing them both in the same day became reality for Liberty High School senior Willie Williams as his 11-yard touchdown catch with no time remaining lifted the Lions to a 27-26 victory over host Central High School in Fresno last Friday.
Liberty fought back from multiple two-touchdown deficits throughout its season opener at Koligian Stadium in Fresno, and with three seconds remaining, the team called for senior quarterback Joseph Tolentino to roll to his right and look for Alex Hull in the front corner of the end zone.
When that didn't go as planned, Tolentino improvised, keeping the play alive and finding Williams in the middle of three smaller Grizzlies defenders standing in the end zone.
“I saw the corner coming at me,” said Tolentino, describing the final play of the game. “(Alex) was my first read, but I saw the linebacker on him, and then I saw Willie waving his hands at me in the end zone.”
Despite falling behind early and facing deficits of 12-0, 20-7 and 26-14, Liberty never stopped attacking the Grizzlies defense, appearing to become the stronger team as the game went on, a realization that was not lost on second-year head coach Jeff Walters.
“We were getting off about one play every 10 seconds in the second half,” said Walters, referring to the blistering no-huddle pace that his team used to attack the fatigued Central defense. “They were cramping on almost every play from the start of the third quarter, and we went the entire game without any cramps. We take pride in our conditioning, and it showed.”
The Lions first got on the board when Tolentino found senior Jacob Puente for a leaping 18-yard touchdown catch, cutting an early Grizzlies lead to five points in the second quarter. Central would expand their lead prior to halftime, sending Liberty to the locker room trailing 20-7 at the break.
Things changed immediately at the start of the second half when Williams took the kickoff and raced 95 yards, weaving between Grizzly defenders along the left sideline then cutting back to the middle of the field to outrace the safety in his way. The Lions then had a chance to take the lead early in the fourth quarter, but a high snap on third-and-goal from the Central 1-yard line gave the ball back to the Grizzlies. Central took advantage of the Lions' miscue and converted with an 80-yard touchdown drive, leaving Liberty staring at a 26-14 deficit midway through the final period of play. That's when Williams once again regained the momentum for the visitors from Brentwood.
After a penalty against the Grizzlies backed them up on the ensuing kickoff, Williams took the kick at his own 9-yard line, got behind a crushing block from senior Dylan Capps and raced 91 yards untouched down the left sideline, once again cutting the deficit to five points.
“Willie's second kickoff return was huge,” Walters said. “This team just has that belief that someone is going to make a play. They believe in each other.”
After a defensive stop, Liberty took over at its own 37-yard line, needing to go 63 yards in the final minute of play to win the game. A defensive penalty and a 37-yard catch-and-run by Williams set up the final play and dramatic victory to open the 2014 campaign.
“Coach (Walters) told us to hit the short routes and pound them in the second half,” said Tolentino, who completed 19 of 29 passes for 230 yards and two scores. “We knew they were tired and that we could come back and win.”
Williams accounted for an astounding 338 all-purpose yards in the game, including 97 receiving and 40 rushing. Tai Tai Canady led the Lions on the ground with 103 yards rushing, while Puente totaled six catches for 55 yards. Kyle Trego and Alex Espinoza each registered sacks for Liberty's defense.
The Lions host Chico High School in their home opener on Sept. 5. Chico opened their season with a 31-28 victory over Roseville.