After a night full of back-and-forth punches, the Class 2 District 3 championship came down to a missed extra-point by Mtn. Grove early in the fourth quarter that gave Mountain View-Birch Tree Liberty a 26-25 edge and a berth in the state quarterfinals.
“That would definitely be at the top of my list,” Liberty senior quarterback Josh Pruett answered when asked if this was the most memorable outcome in a career that has included back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons. “Beating Mtn. Grove is always at the top of the list.
Liberty had beaten the Panthers during the regular season 33-20, but the post-season rematch was an even more memorable encounter between two-of-the-top-four teams in the state. MV/BT Liberty came into the game 11-0 ranked 2nd in the state in Class 2 while Mtn. Grove was 10-1 (with that lone loss to Liberty) and ranked 4th in Class 2.
“The most important game is always the next game you’re going to play,” Liberty head coach Darin Acklin said after the win. “But if you want me to put this in the top five or top 10, it’s got to be somewhere up there because this was a classic 26-25 outcome for a district title game. What more could be on the line tonight? That was just awesome.”
Neither team could score until the 8:57 mark of the second quarter when after a fake field goal netted Liberty a first-down at the Mtn. Grove 33 yard-line, Pruett threw a perfect strike to receiver Koel Orchard for a touchdown and 7-0 Liberty lead. Orchard would end up with 5 catches for 81 yards and that touchdown while fellow receiver Brenton Bush had 9 receptions for 102 yards. Pruett was 21-27 passing for 281 yards and a TD. He rushed 21 times for 146 yards and two touchdowns. That 427 total yards for Pruett surpassed his 397 in the first meeting.
The Eagles 7-0 led lasted just two plays as Mtn. Grove quarterback Carter Otwell lofted a perfect rainbow pass to Patrick Lane for a 51-yard TD that pulled the Panthers within 7-6 after a missed extra-point.
But two-and-a-half minutes later Mtn. Grove would grab the lead at 13-7 when running back Trystan Short fumbled the ball only to have Otwell snag the loose ball in mid-air and ramble 73-yards to the end zone.
With 3:30 left in the half, Liberty went to work on an 80-yard drive. A key fourth down pass to Orchard got the Eagles inside the 10 and Pruett would scramble-wide and take it in for a 14-13 Liberty lead at the half.
Less than four minutes into the third stanza, Short’s six-yard touchdown put Mtn. Grove back in the lead at 19-14 but Liberty countered with two unanswered touchdowns. Starting near midfield, an Eagle drive ended with a quarterback keeper by Pruett at 6:39 of the third quarter to put Liberty up 20-19, and at 3:58 of the third quarter running back Marcos Rodriguez went the final 10-yards of an 86-yard drive to put Liberty ahead 26-19 as the Eagles missed both extra-point attempts.
“We just came out in the second half ready to play,” Pruett said of the Eagles answer after falling behind. “They were blitzing seven or eight guys every single time and we talked about how we were going to pick that up. We used that to our advantages by beating them to the edges.”
“They were very aggressive and kinda stole what Ava was successful with,” added Acklin in referring to the Eagles close call in a 28-20 win over the Bears. “They were just blitz, blitz, blitz up the middle. Our quarterback though is very competitive and our guys just showed a calmness. Mentally and physically we got it done.”
But not before a couple of final scares.
Early in the fourth quarter a one-yard quarterback sneak by Otwell pulled the Panthers within 26-25. But the tying extra-point went wide-left, and that would prove to be the deciding moment of the game. Mtn. Grove did manage one last drive that got into Liberty territory, but on fourth down and eight-yards-to-go, an Otwell pass 20-yards downfield fell incomplete, and MV/BT Liberty had its one-point victory that sends the Eagles into the state quarterfinals against five-time defending state champion Lamar.
“It’s my last year and that’s my goal,” Pruett said of getting one last shot at Lamar as a senior. The Eagles have faced the perennial state champs in the state quarterfinals in five of the last six years and lost every time.
“The rumor is Lamar has the best team they’ve ever put on the field,” Acklin said. “We’ll find out if we can put the best Liberty team on the field. I don’t know. Lamar has set the bar for what we’re supposed to be like in Class 2. But that’s what we’ve been working towards since the first day we got here in August. So we’re just gonna go up there and put our big boy shorts on and see what we can do.”
The good news for Liberty is that last year they kept it close before falling to Lamar 14-7.
“And we should have won it up 7 to 6 with 50-seconds left,” added Pruett. “But that certainly gave us a large confidence boost. Everybody hears Lamar and they get scared. But you can’t do that. You’ve got to go into the game just like it’s any other game and hit ’em right in the mouth.”