The Liberty Christian football team has been ranked No. 1 in Class 1B most of the season.
Now the Patriots will find out if they can finish there.
Playing a full four quarters for the first time this season, Liberty Christian rallied to top the Cusick Panthers 34-32 in an 8-man semifinal Saturday afternoon at Joe Albi Stadium.
It will be a battle of unbeatens in the state final when Liberty Christian (13-0) meets defending champion Neah Bay (13-0) on Saturday afternoon at the Tacoma Dome. Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.
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“I really didn’t think we’d be held to as few points as we were,” Liberty Christian coach Mike Olson said. “We turned the ball over and made some mistakes. It was a great game for us, and hopefully it’ll carry over into next week and we’ll fix those things.”
When it counted most, a freshman had a big hand in the Patriots’ triumph.
Liberty Christian trailed 24-20 with a little more than nine minutes remaining when Olson opened his bag of tricks. On a double pass, the freshman, John Lesser, hauled in a 65-yard touchdown pass.
The Panthers were badly fooled as Lesser was all alone in front of Cusick’s sideline. The score vaulted the Patriots ahead 26-24 with 8:57 to go.
Cusick regained the lead moments later at 32-26, but Liberty Christian answered with an eight-play, 65-yard drive. Quarterback Mike Olson followed a wedge for the final 2 yards as the Patriots regained the lead for good at 34-32 with 2:43 remaining.
That’s when Lesser made his other big play. On Cusick’s first play from its 35-yard line, Lesser stepped in front of the intended receiver for an interception at Liberty Christian’s 45, essentially locking up the game.
“We made too many mistakes in the first half,” Lesser said. “Both teams came out in the second half and played hard and held onto the ball. It was a good game.”Lesser dedicated the win to the Patriots’ seniors.
“This means a lot because these seniors, they deserve it because they’ve been playing so long and haven’t been able to go (to the state playoffs),” Lesser said. “So it feels really special to be able to play with them.”
Cusick (12-1) did something to Liberty Christian that no team has done this year — take a lead and build on it.
After the teams exchanged early touchdowns in the first quarter, Cusick scored back-to-back TDs for an 18-6 lead with 2:30 to go before halftime.
Tyler Morris kept the Patriots from going into the break down two scores when he returned a kickoff 88 yards to pull them within 18-14 with 2:13 remaining in the second quarter.
The Patriots took their first lead at 20-18 on the first possession of the second half when Olson hit Taylor Lindquist on a 19-yard TD pass.
Olson completed 9-of-18 passes for 231 yards and two TDs.
“Their style of game wasn’t good enough to beat us,” Cusick coach Sonny Finley said. “They had to do some trickery — they had to dig in their playbook. That’s what it took. My hat’s off to them. They deserved to win. We deserved to win, too. I just wish we could both play in the (Tacoma) Dome.”
LIBERTY CHRISTIAN 34, CUSICK 32
Liberty Christian 6 8 6 14 — 34
Cusick 6 12 0 14 — 32
C—E. Peterson 5 run (pass failed)
L—B. Peterson 48 pass from Olson (run failed)
C—D. Bluff 6 pass from Sample (run failed)
C—G. Peterson 23 pass from Sample (pass failed)
LC—Morris 88 kickoff return (B. Peterson pass from Olson)
LC—Lindquist 19 pass from Olson (run failed)
C—A. Bluff 23 pass from Sample (run failed)
LC—Lesser 65 pass from B. Peterson (run failed)
C—D. Bluff 4 run (E. Peterson run)
LC—Olson 2 run (Olson run)
RUSHING—LC, Olson 11-9, Howard 13-81, Lesser 6-10, Morris 2-12. C, Sample 17-15, A. Bluff 4-17, D. Bluff 18-71, G. Peterson 2-13, E. Peterson 6-14.
PASSING—LC, Olson 9-18-0-231, B. Peterson 1-1-0-65. C, Sample 16-23-1-266.
RECEIVING—LC, B. Peterson 3-93, Morris 4-83, Lindquist 2-55, Lesser 1-65. C, G. Peterson 5-126, D. Bluff 6-38. A. Bluff 5-102.