TACOMA — With the state championship on the line, the Liberty Christian football team turned to an unlikely hero.
Freshman John Lesser, a 14-year-old baby-faced running back, took a pitch from Mike Olson and plowed into the end zone as time expired Saturday, giving the Patriots a 34-28 victory over Neah Bay in the Class 1B state title game at the Tacoma Dome.
“I was just looking for the goal line. That’s all I was looking for,” Lesser said. “I saw the end zone. I saw the defender. I just put my shoulder down and tried to get in as hard as I could.
“I’ve been dreaming about scoring a game-winning anything, but in the state championship? It is just such a blessing.” Putting your undefeated season in the hands of a freshman would give most teams a serious case of the nerves, but not the Patriots (14-0).
“He is a stud,” Olson said. “He knows how to run the football. We had tremendous faith in him, and he pulled through for us. “Not at all nervous. That kid is tough.”
The play came in front of a big crowd, which was filling in for the Class 4A final to follow. Cameras were popping, the Seattle-area TV stations were filming, and yet a kid from a tiny Richland school made the play of the weekend.
Grabbing a 38 toss sweep out of the air and plowing into the end zone and into state immortality.
“He’s not a freshman to us,” Liberty Christian lineman Timmy Koglin said. “We’ve got three yards to go. If you can’t score from there, you don’t deserve the title.”
The Patriots certainly deserved the title on this night.
Liberty Christian played strong defense throughout, forcing three turnovers and dominating the game until the fourth quarter.
The Patriots had been knocking on the door for a touchdown to put the game away, but Neah Bay’s Josiah Greene ripped the ball out of Olson’s hands at the 1. Five plays later, he was off to the races for a 65-yard touchdown to pull the defending state champion Red Devils within 28-26. Cody Cummins then converted the two-point conversion to tie the score.
“We knew that the way we had moved the ball in the second half, we could make that,” Koglin said of the final drive. “And we did.”
Lesser opened the drive by taking a flea flicker and completing a 28-yard pass to Tyler Morris. Lesser then gained another first down, but the drive appeared to be stalled out when a wide-open touchdown pass was dropped.
On 4th-and-10 from the 15, Olson escaped pressure and scrambled for a first down.
“I didn’t see any wide receivers open — not open enough, anyway — and I didn’t want to throw a pick,” Olson said. “I tried to do the next best thing I could think of, which was just run for it.”
He got the first down and helped set up the finish that had the Tacoma Dome and his teammates buzzing.
“Last play of the game, last play of the career,” Koglin said. “It’s amazing. It’s what we’ve been working for all six years. Been working toward this exact moment. It’s amazing.”
Liberty Christian dominated the game in the first half, leading 20-14 at the break.
Neah Bay fumbled on its first play, and Lesser recovered. Shortly after, Olson found Morris on a perfect fade route for a quick 6-0 lead. Lesser recovered another fumble in the quarter and broke up a would-be touchdown in the end zone.
Brandon Peterson scored on a 35-yard pass and Olson had a 19-yard touchdown run and a 20-8 lead.
Early in the third quarter, Lesser scored from 3 yards out and put Liberty Christian on top 28-14. Neah Bay responded again, setting up the wild final 3 minutes.
“To win a state championship, no matter if you 40-point someone or if you win on the last play of the game, is special,” Liberty Christian coach Mike Olson said. “They did a great job hanging in there and coming back to win the game at the end.”
Liberty Christian 12 8 8 6 — 34 Neah Bay 8 6 0 14 — 28
LC—Tyler Morris 18 pass from Mike Olson (run failed), 10:49
NB—Cody Cummins 4 run (Zeke Greene pass from Josiah Greene), 2:16
LC—Brandon Peterson 35 pass from Olson (kick failed), :00
LC—Olson 19 run (Morris pass from Olson), 11:16
NB—Leyton Doherty 46 pass from J. Greene (pass failed), 1:55
LC—John Lesser 3 run (Peterson pass from Olson), 8:06
NB—Cummins 3 run (pass failed), 9:40
NB—J. Greene 65 run (Cummins run), 2:49
LC—Lesser 2 run, :00
Passing—Liberty Christian: Olson 9-18-0—145, Lesser 1-1-0—28. Neah Bay: J. Greene 6-15-0—131.
Receiving—Liberty Christian: Peterson 6-83, Morris 4-90. Neah Bay: Doherty 4-99, McCaulley 1-18, Z. Greene 1-14.
Fumble recoveries—Liberty Christian: Lesser 2, Cody Daniels 1. Neah Bay, Z. Greene 1, J. Greene 1.