CLOVIS - On a cold and hazy night, one thing was abundantly clear: Sam Stewart Jr. was not ready for his high school football career to end.
The senior two-way superstar for Liberty had his jersey go from sparkling white to a light brown as tears rolled down his face.
Stewart touched the ball 43 times and never left the field on defense.
But all he wanted to talk about was sophomore kicker Brayden Blevins, who nailed a 26-yard field goal as time expired as the 3rd-seeded Patriots beat No. 2 Clovis-Buchanan 24-23 in the Central Section Division I semifinals on Friday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
“It was a great game. Blevins, man. He doesn’t get enough credit,” Stewart said. “The way he works is unbelievable.”
Buchanan took a 23-21 lead with 1:44 left on a 36-yard field goal by Race Mahlum.
But Liberty, led by Stewart, who had 234 rushing yards on 37 carries and caught another six passes for 49 yards, marched down the field, allowing Blevins to convert the biggest kick of his life.
“It means a lot,” Blevins said. “It was a great job by the offense to get me this opportunity. We are going to Valley.”
Liberty will play at No. 1 Fresno-Central next Friday, making practice on Thanksgiving Day that much more special for the Patriots, who are in the D-I championships for the first time since beating Clovis for the program’s first title in 2015.
“I am getting old, man. That was tough,” Liberty coach Bryan Nixon said. “But I am really happy for our kids. They really played their tails off.”
Nixon said his confidence in Blevins to convert the field goal with just three seconds on the clock never wavered.
Both teams were held scoreless in the first quarter of a rematch where the Bears (10-3) beat Liberty (12-1) on the road 28-13 on Sept. 7.
Buchanan took a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter when Kendall Milton, rated as one of the top junior running backs in the nation, scooted 80 yards for the touchdown. The Bears elected to go for a two-point conversion that failed and came into play in the final score.
Liberty took the lead on Stewart’s first of two touchdowns on the night and then extended the lead to 14-6 on a 13-yard rush by Anthony Villanueva.
But Jalen Cropper, another national recruit for Buchanan, took the ensuing kickoff 90 yards and cut the lead to 14-13 at the half.
Buchanan held Liberty to a three-and-out on the opening drive of the third quarter and took a 20-14 lead as D.J. Stevenson connected with Brandon Hernandez on a 20-yard touchdown with 9:01 left in the third. But that was the final touchdown for the explosive Bears.
“The defense has been lights out all year and that’s what we knew,” Nixon said. “We knew they were going to get some plays because of the talent they have, but our defense was bend but don’t break. Lights out.”
Stewart continued to lead the charge for Liberty and scored from four yards out with 4:07 to play to give the Patriots a 21-20 lead on his 29th carry of the night which put him over 200 rushing yards.
“He’s a player, man,” Nixon said about Stewart while holding back tears. “He’s a guy that wants it in his hands. So why not give it to him? We told him, ‘let’s go finish. You’ll be the guy.’ And he finished.”
There was not a dry eye in the post game huddle for Liberty knowing this is the first chance for the seniors to play for a section championship.
“This means we’ve come together so much as a team,” Liberty senior lineman Ryan Aguilar said. “We are team now. We can’t wait to go to Valley. We are ring chasing. We are rolling and ready to go. I can’t wait.”
No. 3 Liberty 24, No. 2 Clovis-Buchanan 23
Central Section Division I semifinal
No. 2 Clovis-Buchanan 0 14 7 3 - 23
No. 3 Liberty 0 13 7 3 - 24
B - Milton 80 run (run fail)
L - Stewart 3 run (Blevins kick)
L - Villanueva 13 run (Blevins kick)
B - Cropper 90 kick return (Mahlum kick)
B - Hernandez 20 kick from Stevenson (Mahlum kick)
L - Stewart 4 run (Blevins kick)
B - Mahlum 36 field goal
L - Blevins 26 field goal
RUSHING - L: Stewart 37-233, Gonzalez 6-22, Mann 1-9, Villanueva 7-38, Holmes 1-3. B: Milton 20-194, Willems 5-26, Stevenson 2-2, Jones 1-(-4).
PASSING - L: 17-26-0-193. B: Stevenson 6-10-0-63.
RECEIVING - L: Matzke 5-62, Mariscal 1-5, Stewart 6-49, Henderson 2-47, Riley 2-28, Martin 1-5. B: Milton 1-5, Jones 3-27, Higgins 1-11, Hernandez 1-20.
W-L: LHS 12-1, BHS 10-3