Less than a week ago, Liberty Christian fans finally got to see what the coaching staff and players knew the Patriots had all year long. Presented with the need for its offense to carry a game for the first time all season, quarterback Keegan Bishop and his mates stepped up to the challenge.
In the 10th game - a state quarterfinal contest against visiting DeSales, a 1B Southeast rival - the Patriots starting defense allowed more than 16 points for the first time all year. Two weeks prior, in a wind storm, the Irish managed just eight points in a 14-8 Liberty Christian victory to end the regular season.
DeSales posted 50 on the Patriots in the quarterfinals. But the Irish ultimately still lost by 34.
"For the first time, it gave the offense a chance to spread its wings and play to their potential," Liberty Christian coach Craig Lukins said. "It was kind of fun scoring 84 points."
That’s right, 84 points. The most of any of the first eight Class 1B playoffs and 10 more than the Patriots had put up on anyone this season. Not that the defense had given the offense much of a chance in a year where half of the time the starters were sitting on the bench by halftime just watching another 40-point running clock mercy game.
The 10-0 Patriots went until Oct. 21 before winning a game by less than 40.
"That’s a lot of it," Lukins said. "We’ve been much better on defense than we thought we’d be. Two things really have been key – staying healthy, like we didn’t last year, and then our defense whose starters hadn’t given up more than 16 points (until Saturday) and pitched some shutouts (the first three games, in fact)."
It doesn’t get any easier this Saturday at 1 p.m., when Liberty Christian comes across the mountains from Richland to face second-seeded Neah Bay (10-0) in a state semifinal game at Mount Tahoma High in Tacoma. It’s a Red Devils team that scores as efficiently as Liberty Christian, just differently.
"I think Neah Bay has thrown 30 passes all season," Lukins said. "We throw 30 in a game. Heck, we’ll throw 30 in a half, if you let us."
That puts senior quarterback Bishop in the spotlight on every possession. He hasn’t disappointed, throwing for 2,622 yards and 46 touchdowns on 108-of-206 passing this season.
The origins of this season’s success for Bishop and the Patriots are rooted in the hardships of 2021. Bishop quickly became ultra-motivated to come back after he suffered a separated shoulder and partially-broken ball socket in his right throwing arm, ending his year.
"It was a calamity of scheduling issues and injuries," Lukins said.
COVID-19 outbreaks among opponents forced Liberty Christian to scramble to pick up games against powers Almira-Coulee-Hartline and Odessa on less than two days notice. ACH, of course, went unbeaten in 2021 and won the state title.
Others went down, too, and a team that went 4-0 in the pandemic-delayed spring season just months before suffered through a 4-6 season in the fall.
"Once I was 100 percent, I got as many guys as I could to go out and throw," Bishop said.
Not only did it get Bishop back into throwing shape, those off-season practice sessions showed him the potential 2022 held for the team.
"For sure, I saw this as a possibility," Bishop said. "I’m not sure everyone was on board at the start. And the first six weeks, we didn’t have what you’d call super strong competition. But after that game in the wind (against DeSales), everyone knew we could do it."
Lukins could see something happening as the season approached.
"We’ve got eight seniors," Lukins said. "And at least four of them are in the weight room all the time. We have a really great leadership crew right now. They have been a difference in us weathering some of these storms."
And instead of getting weaker, as Liberty Christian has reached the most critical point of the postseason, they are getting stronger rather than weaker.
"We’re actually getting healthier as the season has gone on," Lukins said. "Not the other way around."
"We saw it last week,” Bishop said. “We know we can put up as many and more points than the other guys. And our defense is able to fly around really well. We can stop the run and put up points. Now we know, the capability is there on both sides of the ball."
Editor’s note: Here's a game-by-game breakdown, including top individual performers, outlook and score prediction, of this weekend’s 2022 WIAA Class 1B football semifinal matchups.
NO. 3 LIBERTY CHRISTIAN PATRIOTS (10-0) AT NO. 2 NEAH BAY RED DEVILS (10-0)
1 p.m. Saturday at Mount Tahoma Stadium, Tacoma
Statistical leaders: For Liberty Christian — QB Keegan Bishop (108-206, 2,622 yards, 46 TDs), RB Charlie Branning (58 carries, 747 yards, 14 TDs), WR Drew Ott (30 catches, 869 yards, 16 TDs), LB Addison Lyle (95 tackles, 13 TFL), DE Sam Culver (81 tackles, 21.5 TFL, nine sacks), DB Charlie Branning (six INTs). For Neah Bay — QB Julian Carrick (51 carries, 808 yards, 20 TDs; 16-26, 457 yards, nine TDs), RB Jodell Wimberly (115 carries, 1,500 yards, 21 TDs), WR Adan Ellis (11 catches, 325 yards, six TDs), DL Andre Greene (36 tackles, 21 TFL, three sacks) and DL Julian Carrick (four INTs).
What to watch for: Both of these teams rolled to big quarterfinal victories by scoring on virtually every possession a week ago. The Patriots threw up a 1B playoff high this season of 84 points, while the Red Devils put 66 points on a talented Wellpinit squad. Maybe don’t expect 150 combined this week, as both these teams do play a little defense as well, but should continue to see multi-faceted run game from Neah Bay and Bishop can throw it for Liberty Christian.
Pick: Liberty Christian, 50-48.
NO. 5 LIBERTY BELL MOUNTAIN LIONS (10-2) AT NO. 1 ODESSA TIGERS (10-0)
1 p.m. Saturday at Lions Field, Moses Lake
Statistical leaders: For Liberty Bell — QB Riley Lidey (98-136, 1,574 yards, 31 TDs; 66 carries, 608 yards, nine TDs), RB Remy Paz (68 carries, 653 yards, four TDs; 27 catches, 397 yards, 10 TDs), RB Lucien Paz (83 carries, 613 yards, six TDs), WR Sawyer Crandall (31 catches, 611 yards, 12 TDs), DB Remy Paz (76 tackles, 13 TFL, five INTs) and DB Lucien Paz (72 tackles, seven TFL). For Odessa — QB Collin Martin (36 carries, 288 yards, five TDs; 44-56, 971 yards, 19 TDs), RB Gage Starkel (156 carries, 1,721 yards, 26 TDs; six catches, 213 yards, four TDs); LB Collin Martin (59 tackles, 3.5 TFL); DB Gage Starkel (three INTs).
What to watch for: It’ll be interesting to see just how different these teams look from their Week 1 contest won by the top-seeded and top-ranked Tigers, 42-22. Odessa comes in having survived a high-scoring affair with Naselle in the quarterfinals, 76-74. The Mountain Lions didn’t have quite as much difficulty on the road at Mossyrock, posting a 34-point win. Whether Liberty Bell has improved enough to stick with the Tigers 11 weeks later, that is the question..
Pick: Odessa, 48-30.