Playoff glory is a fickle mistress.
The Liberty Ranch High football team courted history throughout the regular season, but a wild turn of events left the third-seeded Hawks stunned after a 28-21 loss to No. 6 Dixon in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V quarterfinals on Friday night in Galt.
“We did not play the type of game that we've played all season. It was just a weird night,” said Liberty Ranch coach Warren Schroeder. “I don't want to make any excuses. Obviously Dixon came to play, and they took advantage of the mistakes that we made, it's just rare for us to make so many mistakes in one game. When you make those mistakes, you pay for them.”
Liberty Ranch's mistakes didn't just come in one night — they came in one quarter. After winning the turnover battle with a Nick Cedeno fumble recovery in the first quarter, and interceptions by Kymani Fenika and Gavin O'Brien in the second and third quarters, the Hawks gave up the ball three times in the fourth quarter in three different ways.
Liberty Ranch held a 21-14 lead midway through the fourth quarter when Dixon's Seyyid Smith blocked a 20-yard field goal attempt by Liberty Ranch's Julian Rodriguez. Dixon's Luis Torres picked up the ball and took it 85 yards for a touchdown. It didn't tie the game, as the extra-point attempt was blocked at the other end of the field.
But a few plays later, Dixon's Brent Green snatched a Fenika pass out of the air, setting up a 59-yard touchdown pass from Jett Harris to Jordan Sengmany. A two-point converson gave Dixon a 28-21 lead.
Liberty Ranch took the ball and drove down the field to the 10-yard line before fumbling on a pitch. Dixon's Matthew Whitaker jumped on the loose ball to season the first loss of the season for Liberty Ranch.
The Hawks were 10-0 coming into the game. Dixon left with a 10-2 record, heading off to face No. 2 Sonora, a 31-15 winner over No. 10 Center on Friday.
“There's a lot of positives to take out of the seasons. I don't want this night to tarnish all the positives to come out,” said Schroeder, a long-time Liberty Ranch coach in the first season of his second stint as the program's head coach. “It wasn't our night, and that's unfortunate, because I thought these guys could go a long way in the playoffs. But we have to learn to deal with disappointment, and they have to learn there's disappointment in their lives. Life lessons.”
Liberty Ranch's run-heavy game did most of its work in the first half. Arthur Draeger finished the game with 146 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, Gavin O'Brien had 14 carries for 67 yards and a touchdown, and Fenika finished with 17 carries for 66 yards and a score.
Dixon's spread offense was hit and miss, but did enough to keep the Rams close enough to strike. Quarterback Harris completed 12 of 29 passes for 176 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran for a touchdown.
“It's one of those things where that's the game of football,” Schroeder said. “You can have all the odds in your favor, but if the ball doesn't bounce your way on Friday, you know, it is what it is, and you have to just deal with it.”
Draeger, the section's fourth-leading rusher with 1,733 yards coming into the game, took one to the house on the second play of the game, breaking loose for a 56-yard score. After going back and forth for field position the rest of the first quarter and most of the second, the Hawks mounted a nine-play drive to score just before the half, with O'Brien disappearing under the pile from a yard out and emerging in the end zone.
But with just 44 second to work with before the half, Dixon struck back with an 80-yard kickoff return by Alijah Montgomery to set up a 7-yard touchdown run on a Harris quarterback keeper.
A long third-quarter punt by Fenika, who got favorable rolls all night on his kicks, pinned Dixon back, and O'Brien caught an interception on the 6-yard line. A play later, Fenika crashed through a defender into the end zone to put Liberty Ranch up 21-7.
The Rams, again, responded to keep the game close, completing two quick passes to move into the red zone. Harris found Green crossing over the middle for a 6-yard touchdown to keep the lead to one score.
That's where things fell apart for the previously-undefeated Hawks. After a long drive, Dixon stood its ground at the 4-yard line, setting up Liberty Ranch's field goal attempt. A block, a scoop, and 85 yards later, Dixon's large visiting crowd went wild, while the air left the home side of the stadium.
After the game, Schroeder told his players to keep their heads up.
“I couldn't have asked for a better group to start my return as head coach to Liberty Ranch with,” said Schroeder, who was head coach in 2015 before stepping away to help with his son's battle with cancer. “They laid a great foundation for the groups that we're going to have in the future, the future generations. They brought pride and respect to the school, making history, and although we're disappointed, we can't let that tarnish all the things that we accomplished this season.”