For an entire season, things had gone just about as well as Liberty could have expected. It won the Northwestern District, completed an undefeated regular season and pretty much had its way with its opponents.
That all came to an abrupt end Friday night in the Virginia AA Region II Division 4 semifinals against Valley District co-champion Harrisonburg. Amid heavy fog in Bealeton, Harrisonburg (10-1) jumped out to an early lead, and the Eagles came charging back from a two-touchdown deficit before falling just short, 28-27.
"It was a heck of a football game," said Liberty Coach Tom Buzzo. "They're a heck of a football team. They're extremely well coached, and I don't think they could have played any better."
With just over a minute to play in the game, Liberty (10-1) was down seven and driving for a score. Facing a third and nine from the Blue Streaks' 33, quarterback Jon Vescogni, in the game for starter Nick Monaco, who had injured his right knee a few minutes earlier, rolled right before heaving a long pass back across the field to a sliding Adrian Hull at the 5-yard line. Three plays later, running back Justin Carrington (31 carries, 160 yards) reached the end zone to pull Liberty within one.
The Eagles hurried their extra-point team onto the field, but they were unable to stop Harrisonburg's Patrick Ward, who flew around the corner and blocked Steven Malik's kick.
The Blue Streaks recovered the onside kick, and the game -- along with Liberty's season -- came to an end.
"I knew I had it, right when I got around that corner," said Ward about the decisive play. "He didn't get there quick enough, and I was like, 'I got this.' "
The play was the pinnacle of a thrilling game in which Harrisonburg reeled off big play after big play, only to have Liberty claw back.
Harrisonburg got going in a hurry. On its third play from scrimmage, running back Andy Owah (18 carries, 192 yards) took a delayed handoff, burst through the defensive line and went 69 yards untouched for the early 7-0 lead for the Blue Streaks.
The long score would become a theme for Harrisonburg. All four of their touchdowns covered at least 54 yards.
Liberty quickly answered after Harrisonburg's first score. On his fifth carry of the night, Carrington broke a tackle on the left side of the defensive front and raced 31 yards to even the score, 7-7.
On the first play of the second quarter, Harrisonburg quarterback Ben Sarver found Ward in a seam on the left side of the field, and the wide receiver caught the ball in stride and streaked downfield for a 56-yard touchdown to put the Blue Streaks up by seven.
Again Liberty responded. On the ensuing drive, which began at the Liberty 20, Monaco scrambled right and floated a 20-yard pass back toward the middle of the end zone to a waiting Dru Hicks, to tie the game heading into halftime.
"We made some big plays, and that's what you have to do when you play a team the caliber of Liberty," said Harrisonburg Coach Tim Sarver, whose team lost to the Eagles, 17-10, in the same round of the playoffs a year ago. "They're a great football team. It was a great game, one of the best we've ever been associated with."
The action didn't slow in the second. A 63-yard touchdown reception from Ward and another long run by Owah, this one from 54 yards, put the Blue Streaks up by 14 after three quarters.
But the Eagles refused to quit, getting two scores from Carrington in the fourth quarter before finally succumbing.
"It's tough in that locker room right now," said Buzzo. "This is the closest team I've ever been around."