CLOVIS — Try as they might, the Liberty football team just had too many obstacles to overcome on Friday night.
Playing without two of their key starters, the Patriots didn’t do themselves any favors, committing five turnovers in a 27-0 loss to Clovis-Buchanan in the Central Section Division I semifinals at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium.
“Missed opportunities,” said Liberty coach Bryan Nixon, whose only two losses this season were on the road at Buchanan. “I think that’s the one thing, we missed opportunities, and turnovers. Doing the little things right. We talked about doing the little things right.
“But at the end of the day, this group is a special group. I love them to death and they played their hearts out all year long. They were fun to watch, they’re a great football team and they’re a great family.”
Despite playing without two-way star Ramon Henderson, who sprained his ankle in practice this week, and starting quarterback Haden Mann (injured knee), the Patriots had their chances.
But it seemed that every time Liberty (10-2) moved the ball down field, another mistake got in their way.
Trailing 6-0 after Buchanan (10-2) scored on an 86-yard pass play from Ian Kirby to Darrien Gaines on the second play from scrimmage, the Patriots responded with a 59-yard kickoff return by Jason Oliver that gave his team the ball at the Bears’ 32. But after moving the ball to the 14, the drive stalled, and Brayden Blevins missed a 36-yard field goal, wide left.
The Patriots defense forced Buchanan to punt on its next four possessions, but a Liberty fumble gave the Bears the ball in Patriots’ territory. Three plays later, Kirby connected with Brandon Hernandez for a 42-yard scoring play to make it 13-0 with 3:39 left in the first half.
Liberty opened the second half with a long kickoff return from Dylan Tooker, but the play was called back because of an illegal block. Two plays later, the Patriots fumbled, leading to a 9-yard scoring pass from Kirby to Hernandez to make it 20-0. Kirby finished the night 11 of 18 passing for 299 yards and three touchdowns. Hernandez had four catches for 114 yards.
The Patriots countered again, this time moving the ball to the Buchanan 11 before their drive lost steam. That led to another missed field goal, this one from 29 yards out.
Liberty fumbled and threw an interception on its next two drives, which led to a 49-yard touchdown run by Kendall Milton that capped the scoring.
“I tell you what, they never gave up, no matter what” Nixon said. “Our defense played lights out again. We’ve hung our hats with those guys all year long and they did a great job. We had a lot of turnovers, they had their backs against the wall and they never broke. And that’s the character of this group.”
Prentice Boone rushed for 81 yards on 22 carries, while Tooker added 76 yards on 11 yards as a fill-in quarterback.
“Our kids play their tails off,” Nixon said. “They bust their butt day in, and day out. They buy in, they spend a lot of time together; they love each other. The coaches coach their tails off, they love the kids. This is a special group. I love them to death.”