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Photo by Tony Kukulich

The football season came to an end for the Liberty Lions as they fell to Pittsburg 21-14 in the North Coast Section Division 1 Football Championships in Pittsburg, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. The Lions finished the season with a 10-2 record with both losses delivered by the Pirates, who will face De La Salle in the NCS finals, Friday, Nov. 29 at Dublin High School.

The Liberty High School football team entered its North Coast Section semifinal with Pittsburg looking for redemption from an overtime loss to the Pirates earlier this season.

That task will have to carry over into next season, as the Pirates squeaked out a 21-14 win to advance to the North Coast Section Division I title game against vaunted De La Salle (winner of 27 consecutive North Coast Section titles) on Nov. 29 at Dublin High School. 

“We needed to stop chunk plays and get chunk plays against Pittsburg, and it went their way,” said Liberty head coach Ryan Partridge. “They made one more play than us, and at the end of the day, that was it.”

James Battle III’s 77-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter put Pittsburg up 21-14, and the Pirates D largely took care of the rest.

Lamont Fortenberry’s fourth-down end zone interception with under four minutes to play — and the Lions 14 yards away from tying the game — set the Pirates’ win in motion, and running back Avant Muldrow finished the job with a 47-yard third-down scamper minutes later to essentially seal the game with under two minutes to play.

“I don’t really know how to explain it,” said Liberty quarterback Jay Butterfield. “The defense stepped up big time, but the offense really couldn’t get into a rhythm.”

The Lions struck first in the game on a Cody Muth 10-yard reception late in the first quarter, and after falling behind 14-7, managed to tie the game at 14 on Beau Dionio’s 33-yard catch late in the third quarter, set up by linebacker Mason Padilla’s interception.

But every time the Lions appeared to be gaining momentum, the Pirates quickly seized it back.

Pittsburg answered Liberty’s 7-0 lead with two second-quarter scores — 5 and 41-yard receptions by Brian Andre Pierce Jr. and Battle — to take a 14-7 halftime lead. And one play after Dionio’s 33-yard third-quarter catch tied the game at 14, Battle put Pittsburg back in front for good, 21-14, with his 77-yard touchdown with 11:47 left in the fourth quarter.

Liberty’s defense forced Pittsburg to punt on its final three possessions, but Liberty couldn’t capitalize, ending its final three drives with a punt, turnover on downs and the interception.

“We had some frustration on offense,” Partridge said. “(Defensive coordinator Charlie Ramirez) over there does a really good job on defense, but the kids’ effort was there. (Pittsburg) just made one more play.”

The loss ends a sensational three-year run for the Lions that saw the team win its first-time North Coast Section and state titles in its 116-year history.

The team’s key senior leaders, including Butterfield and 2019 league MVP Payton Zdroik, were emotional after the Pittsburg loss, reflecting on the team’s monumental achievements.

“That junior year, that state championship, that was insane,” Zdroik said when asked about his favorite football memory as a Lion.

Butterfield said the team couldn’t have risen to greatness without the community cheering it on.

“I love this team; I love this community,” Butterfield said. “I get emotional. This is the last game I will ever play in this uniform. I’ve loved each and every one of my teammates and coaches.”

Even in the midst of defeat, the Lions’ glorious run wasn’t lost on Partridge.

“I just told this class of 2020 that they changed Brentwood forever, and they changed Liberty High School,” he said. “They left a legacy that is hard to follow, but we have a lot of young, talented players that we are excited about.”