By Brad Fauber
STEPHENS CITY -- Sherando's defense had come up with big stops all evening, but the Warriors saved their best for when it mattered most.
With Sherando clinging to a 7-6 lead and visiting Liberty driving with less than a minute remaining in the game, Eagles quarterback Tyler Longerbeam took the snap from the Sherando 46-yard line and dropped back, scanning the left side of the field for an open receiver. Longerbeam rolled slightly to his left and cocked his arm to throw, but as his arm was going forward he was hit from behind by Sherando's pass rush.
The ball flew from Longerbeam's hand, right into the arms of Sherando linebacker Daniel Eppard near the Warriors' 40-yard line. Eppard raced untouched to the end zone for what would be the game-clincher for the Warriors, giving Sherando a wild 14-6 win.
"We knew it was going to be a dogfight," said Warriors senior Taylor Loudan. "We came out here and faced a lot of adversity throughout the entire game, but we responded in every situation. I'm so proud of my guys for fighting. It was awesome."
Both teams had to fight for every yard gained, as neither defense was willing to budge.
The teams combined to punt the ball 10 times in the opening half while totaling just eight first downs. Liberty (4-4, 1-1 Evergreen) twice started drives in Sherando territory in the first quarter, but the Warriors defense held the Eagles to a three-and-out.
"Defensively we just kept answering. They would get a short field and we would answer," said Warriors coach Bill Hall. "I thought we took another step forward with our defense."
After being forced to punt the ball on each of its five possessions in the first half, Sherando (5-3, 2-0 Northwestern) finally got on the board on the first possession of the third quarter with a 76-yard drive that took just seven plays.
Sophomore quarterback Josh Ojo, filling in for the injured Reid Entsminger, connected on passes of 30 and 21 yards on the drive, both to senior tight end Joshua Wagner. The latter completion set up a first-and-goal for the Warriors at the Liberty 3-yard line, and Loudan punched it in on the next play to give Sherando a 7-0 lead with 7:57 left in the third quarter.
Ojo finished 5-for-7 passing for 82 yards. Loudan carried the load of Sherando's offense on Friday, rushing 31 times for 109 yards and a score.
"I think we knew that, getting the ball in the second half, we had the momentum in our favor," Loudan said. "I think we came out with a lot of fire and energy and just hit them in the mouth going down the field."
Liberty's offense continued to struggle in the second half, but the Eagles caught a break midway through the fourth quarter when Loudan fumbled on a punt return and Liberty's Royer Rubio fell on the ball at the Warriors' 23-yard line.
A false start penalty put the Eagles into a third-and-16 from Sherando's 29, but Longerbeam found Bobby Chiccehitto over the middle for a 26-yard pass to the Warriors' 3-yard line. Aristotle Howard scored on the next play to put Liberty in position to tie with 4:31 to play.
But on the extra point attempt, Ojo sprang free off the right side of the line and made a diving block on Ryan Morris' kick to keep Sherando ahead 7-6.
"The effort was there, we played extremely hard against a very good team," said Eagles coach Sean Finnerty. "We just didn't get the breaks we needed tonight. They got a few breaks and we didn't. That's just how it works."
The Eagles had one final opportunity to tie the game after Eppard's late interception return.
Starting at its own 29, Liberty reached the Sherando 32 on a hook-and-lateral play that went for 28 yards. With six seconds remaining and the Eagles down to their last play, Longerbeam slipped in the backfield as he dropped back to pass. He hit the turf as time expired.
Sherando held Liberty to just 159 yards of total offense, and just 80 yards rushing on 33 carries.
"I don't think we panicked there at the end. Sometimes you just lose your head in that situation, but we did a good job," Hall said. "We have a long history with those guys. It's very physical and we usually match up real well, and it usually comes down to the end."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org