Taking Liberty

Sherando's LeeQuan Johnson Jr. finds a huge hole during this first-quarter touchdown run last week against James Wood. The Warriors hit the road to face Liberty in a playoff game tonight. Rich Cooley/Daily file

STEPHENS CITY — Sherando’s football team is getting a second shot at Liberty.

After falling to the Eagles, 28-14, at home back on Oct. 3, Sherando finds itself preparing this week for a highly anticipated rematch with Liberty in tonight’s Region 4A North second-round game at 7 p.m. in Bealeton.

“We said the Saturday after that we definitely want to see them again,” Warriors junior quarterback Patrick Minteer said of Sherando’s regular-season loss to the Eagles. “We wanted to see them again and now that we’re getting the opportunity I don’t think we’re going to let it go to waste.”

It isn’t just the players that are excited for this season’s second iteration of Sherando-Liberty, which will be the sixth meeting — and third playoff matchup — between the two schools in the last three seasons. Warriors head coach Bill Hall can be included in that group as well.

“I think normally speaking I’m not a big fan of the whole rematch deal just because part of the playoffs, it’s fun getting to play different opponents, preparing for someone you haven’t played. I think the only exception to that is Liberty,” Hall said, “and the only standpoint to that is we have a lot of respect for their program and their coaching staff. … It’s one of those things, you like to challenge yourself against really good ball clubs and Liberty falls into that category.”

Liberty’s (10-1) win over the Warriors earlier this season snapped the Eagles’ two-game losing streak to Sherando. Both teams have split their last two playoff meetings, with the Eagles claiming a first-round win two years ago before Sherando earned a second-round victory over Liberty during last season’s postseason march that led to an appearance in the Group 4A state championship game.

Sherando (9-2) — the sixth seed in this year’s playoffs — has won five straight games since its loss to the Eagles last month, and Hall said the Warriors have gained some valuable experience since then and are playing at a much higher level now than they were earlier in the year.

“Our confidence is really high just based on where we’ve come from since the last time we played them,” said Minteer, who added that the Warriors are committing fewer mistakes than they were in October. “I think we’re very capable of competing with them and beating them. I think right now the way that we’re practicing, and the last couple times we’ve played, we’re very capable of putting up a good match against them.”

Eagles junior quarterback Aaron Walters gashed Sherando’s defense in the running game in their first meeting this season, running for 314 yards and three touchdowns on only 12 carries. Walters gained well over half of those yards (228) in the first half as neither team scored over the final two quarters.

“It goes back to playing assignment football, making sure everybody’s doing their job,” Hall said. “If you do that, that’s what great defenses do. We like to think we’re a great defense. We pride ourselves on that. We just learned some valuable lessons early in that ballgame that they drove home emphatically.”

Sherando was outgained by Liberty 408-327 in total offense in that loss, but the Warriors did largely limit the Eagles’ production outside of Walters, who also completed 3 of 6 passes for 24 yards. Five different Liberty players combined for the other 70 yards rushing on 21 carries, though the Eagles did play without senior running back Martin Parker.

Parker (110 carries, 1,056 yards) and Walters (80 carries, 1,170 yards) lead a powerful Liberty rushing attack that also includes senior T.J. Hogan (111 carries, 738 yards), whom the Warriors held to 13 yards on 14 carries in October. That trio has combined for 45 rushing touchdowns this season, led by Walters’ 20.

Walters has also completed 63 of 100 passes for 1,068 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception this season.

No. 3 Liberty, which is coming off a 48-7 win over Pulaski last week, is averaging 45.1 points per game this season, while Sherando’s defense — led by senior Brogan McPartland’s 19.5 sacks — is allowing 15.3 points and 226 yards per contest. The Eagles’ 28 points against Sherando was their fewest in a game this fall.

“We have to keep their offense off the field,” said Minteer, who quarterbacks a Warriors offense that is averaging 34.6 points and 317.7 yards per game this fall. “If we can take long drives down the field and we can run the football, I think we’ll be in good shape.”

Sherando’s running game continued to roll in last week’s 48-0 rout of James Wood, as the Warriors churned out 254 of their 346 yards of total offense on the ground.

Senior running back LeeQuan Johnson Jr. leads Sherando with 1,488 yards and 23 touchdowns on 279 carries, while Minteer has completed 90 of 153 passes for 1,539 yards, 22 touchdowns and three interceptions.

Liberty’s defense, which has held opposing teams to seven points or fewer seven different times this season, is allowing only 12.3 points per game.

Against Liberty, the Warriors moved the football well behind Johnson, who had 143 yards rushing, 90 yards receiving and two total touchdowns, but Sherando also turned the ball over on a pair of fumbles.

“We liked a lot of things we were doing on offense,” Hall said. “Obviously there were some uncharacteristic things in terms of the turnovers. For not playing our best football, the fact that we were in it and had a chance to be in it, especially at the end of the ballgame, I think says a lot. It gives us some optimism for what we can do this week. But again, just as we’ve improved from that point, so have they improved from that point.”

<em>Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or <a href=“mailto:bfauber@nvdaily.com”>bfauber@nvdaily.com</a></em>