Sam Stewart Jr. said right before the Liberty offense took the field that Patriots head coach Bryan Nixon gave him a look.
Stewart knew the look, it meant that the Liberty senior two-way superstar had to put his team on his back and lead the Patriots to victory.
In a defensive battle when neither offense could muster a score in the second half, Stewart ran the ball seven times for 60 yards on the final drive that ate up the final 4 minutes and 40 seconds off the clock as No. 3 Liberty beat No. 4 Bakersfield 7-0 for the Southwest Yosemite League championship.
“Oh man, I am going to be sore in the morning,” Stewart said. “Nixon just looked at me on the sidelines like, ‘You got to run this. It’s all on you.’ But it was my linemen, without them, there is no me.”
Stewart played every defensive snap in the second half for Liberty (9-1, 5-0) as the Patriots’ shut out a potent BHS (7-3, 4-1) offense.
“That was a huge drive at the end of the deal,” Nixon said. “But our defense played lights out to them, man. Hats off to our staff, they did a great job. Heck, I am just really fired up for our kids.”
Cameron Williams was picked twice. First it was Jake O’Connell in the second quarter, then Hunter Riley snared a Williams’ pass in the second half. Ramon Henderson nearly had a third, but the standout junior had the pass fall right from his hands.
“These two teams have put a lot of points on the board,” Nixon said.
In fact, they did. Liberty gave up just two touchdowns in the last five games while the offense, led by Stewart, averaged more than 35 points a game.
BHS was also electric in the first four game games of league play, but both defenses were the shining gems.
“We will take 7-0 and move on to the playoffs,” Nixon said.
BHS had opportunities. The Drillers' defense sacked Hector Gonzalez five times as Cameron Bonner had three and Adrian Moreno and Davontay Bell added one each.
“It hurts. It is a hard loss,” Moreno said. “One thing to do is fall forward. We have to fall forward now. We need to bond and transfer it to practice and work.”
Both teams will still likely be the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds when the Central Section Division I playoffs are announced Saturday afternoon.
Liberty will likely be the No. 3 seed as the Patriots have a loss to likely No. 2 Clovis-Buchanan. If seeded that way, the two teams could meet three weeks from now in the semifinals.
Stewart’s work on Friday night makes a rematch possible.
The senior’s 2-yard run on the third play of the second quarter was the lone score. Stewart ran the ball 20 times for a game-high 156 yards and played all but “a couple plays” in the first half on defense.
“That’s what you love about him is he never wants to come off the field,” Nixon said. “He wants the ball in his hands in crunch time and it showed tonight. His savvy, his attitude and his effort is the whole package. He is the real deal.”
Stewart was mobbed by his teammates afterward in an on-field league championship game that felt like it should have been played 25 years ago in the fog and mud in late November because even in the regular season finale, this one had the feel of a late round playoff battle.
“I couldn’t let them down,” Stewart said. “It was so fun. There was a point where they fumbled, then we fumbled. And you could feel it. This was an old-school game.”