The LaCrosse-Washtucna/ Kahlotus defense no doubt was looking for John Lesser, the Liberty Christian running back who ran for 221 yards and four touchdowns against them three weeks ago.
But after Reace Howard’s first touch Friday evening, it’s safe to say the Tigercats had an even bigger problem on their hands in the Patriots’ 70-8 victory in the Class 1B state quarterfinals at Edgar Brown Stadium.
Howard took the handoff from quarterback Mike Olson, thundered his way into the guts of the LaCrosse defense and came out the other side, racing 58 yards for the first of his four touchdown runs.
“Everybody hit their blocks, and I didn’t get touched,” Howard said. “I was just looking at the goalposts.”
It wasn’t even his biggest of the day. That came on a 58-yard scamper down the left sideline on the second play of the third quarter. An outstanding downfield block by Tyler Morris to seal off the linebacker allowed him to break it all the way.
“That tells me how dedicated my team is to every play,” Howard said. “We’ve had a lot of experience playing together since seventh grade. We never had this opportunity before, and I’m proud of the younger guys for stepping up.”
Liberty Christian (12-0) will play Cusick (12-0) in the 1B semifinals.
Howard, a 6-foot, 210-pound senior who missed the previous matchup against the ’Cats with a sore hamstring, finished with 227 yards on 11 carries. That performance — plus a dominating effort by the Patriots’ offensive front of Timmy Koglin, Riley Smith and Corbin Steele — anchored a strong day for Liberty Christian, which totaled 359 yards on the ground.
Lesser got into the act in the second half, carrying six times for 111 yards. He also rushed for touchdowns of 19 and 61 yards.
“We’ve got some good kids who have been solid all year round,” LC coach Mike Olson said. “We minimized mistakes. We pride ourselves on turnovers, and I think we did a good job with that tonight.”
The Patriots capitalized on three Tigercats turnovers, converting them into 24 points.
Cornerback Brandon Peterson picked up a fumble by LaCrosse-Washtucna running back Sawyer Hostetler at the Tigercats’ 38-yard line and cruised in for the score to make it 48-0 with 2:05 left in the first half. After Howard’s 58-yard run, Liberty Christian freshman Connor Mote came through on special teams, recovering a fumble at the L-W 33-yard line to set up a 19-yard run by Lesser.
That made it 64-0 with 9:49 left in the game. The outcome long since decided, the Tigercats still drove 40 yards in 12 plays on their next drive to get close enough for a shot at the end zone. From 21 yards out, LaCrosse quarterback Joey Guske pitched it to Hostetler, who threw into the end zone to what he thought was an open target.
Turned out it was Morris, who jumped in front of the receiver for the interception. It was one of several big plays on defense for the 6-foot senior, who also made a big hit on Guske on fourth and short in L-W-K territory, giving the ball back to the Patriots. He scored on the next play from scrimmage, running around left end for a 31-yard touchdown on his only carry of the day.
“We’ve got six seniors. We’ve all been on the other side of these losses. We just love playing football,” Morris said. “We’re pretty focused as a team.”
Lesser scored on a 61-yard run to give Liberty Chrisitan a 70-0 lead with 9:33 left in the game. With a running clock in full swing, LaCrosse came back with a 10-play drive and capped it — and its season — with a well-earned score.
Guske rolled out and hit Sam Harder on a drag route from four yards out with just 18 seconds remaining, allowing the Tigercats’ seniors to go out with some pride.
“We were telling each other in the huddle, ‘Let’s get a score,’ ” said Hostetler, who also wished the best to Liberty Christian in their pursuit of its first-ever state championship.
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” Hostetler said. “We like those guys. They’re an east-side team, and they kicked our butt twice.”
LaCrosse-Washtucna/Kahlotus 0 0 0 8 — 8
Liberty Christian 16 32 16 6 — 70
LC—Reace Howard 44 run (Howard run)
LC—Taylor Lindquist 3 run (Howard run)
LC—Howard 26 run (Howard run)
LC—Tyler Morris 31 run (Howard run)
LC—Howard 6 run (Lindquist run)
LC—Brandon Peterson 38 interception return (John Lesser run)
LC—Howard 58 run (Lindquist run)
LC—Lesser 19 run (Lesser run)
LC—Lesser 61 run (run failed)
LWK—Sam Harder 4 pass from Joey Guske (Alec Fleming pass from Guske)
RUSHING—LWK, Bo Rice 4-9, Sawyer Hostetler 30-96, Johnathan Holdren 10-34, Guske 1-2, Fleming 1-2, Graham DeBell 1-4. LC, Howard 11-227, Lindquist 3-9, Lesser 6-111, Morris 1-31, Peterson 1-12.
PASSING—LWK, Guske 8-17-0-74, Hostetler 0-1-1-0. Lib, Morris 3-6-0-35.
RECEIVING—LWK, Rice 1-15, Fleming 3-22, Holdren 3-33, Harder 1-4. LC, Morris 2-20, Lindquist 1-15.
FIRST DOWNS—LWK 13, LC 15. FUMBLES-LOST—LWK 3-2, LC 1-0. PENALTIES-YARDS—LWK 2-10, LC 3-15.