KINGSTON, NY — Lost in the furious scramble to celebrate championship victories and the heroics that marshal such wins in playoff games are the more important and enduring values gained from athletic endeavors. Perseverance, in the face of adversity, teamwork, self-discipline, and striving to attain reachable goals have a much longer shelf life than wins that will erelong be forgotten. As the late John Wooden, the legendary men’s basketball coach at UCLA once noted, “Success is knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”
Wooden would have lauded the efforts of the Liberty football team that rose from the early season ashes of a 0-2 league record, and the loss of its star running back Kenny Jaycox later along the way, to run off an impressive six-game winning streak. That resurgence included league wins over Burke, Dover and Onteora and propelled Liberty into the playoffs.
Last week, the Indians defeated Millbrook 35-18 to reach the Class C title game with a chance to knock off defending champion James I. O’Neill. That Liberty would come up short in that final quest by dint of its 35-14 loss to the Raiders might be the subject of other sports narratives about the game. But for this writer, that final score, which does not begin to inform how close this game was, belies Liberty’s outstanding efforts in the season run up to this encounter and their performance for three fourths of the championship fray.
Tied 7-7 at the half and 14-14 at the end of the third quarter, the Indians were afforded a trio of opportunities to take charge of this game and to win their first title since 1999 when they beat Spackenkill 13-12. (In 2002, Liberty was the only team in Class C and was awarded the title by default.) One of the salient lessons to be gleaned from this game is about opportunities that are presented to us; those precious chances we are given and what it takes to seize the moment to turn those to our advantage. Sadly for Liberty, probably as a result of far less playoff experience than their battle-tested rivals, the team failed to capitalize on its chances, which might have well resulted in a 21-7 first half lead. Unable to “seize the day,” Liberty left the door open for talented O’Neill to wear them down, and for Section 9’s leading rusher Jerry Nasi to amass four touchdowns and 248 rushing yards enroute to being named the game’s Offensive Player. For those who wish to revel in the game details, see “A Game of Chance(s)” on www.sportsinsightsny.com.
But for this post-season elegy, the emphasis is on the glorious legacy this football team leaves. The last time Liberty played in a title game was in 2009 in a lackluster 27-0 loss to Ellenville. The Indians were never in that game but they surely were in this one. Liberty Coach John Wilhelm lauded his team’s character and effort with words that reflect the sentiments of the community and the county, which looked to the Indians as their local standard bearer.
“We’re extremely proud of the kids. They really stepped up. They just adapted to life without Kenny [Jaycox] and they did a great job. They bought into what we were doing and they kept on fighting. It’s a great group of kids,” Wilhelm said. “We had a great year.”
The stark contrast between the joyful celebration of the O’Neill Raiders on the occasion of their back-to-back title wins and the somber, at times tearful, exit of the Liberty players from the stadium reflected the huge emotional chasm between victory and defeat. But as time goes on, and the pain of the loss diminishes accordingly, what will be left is the residual positives from a season to remember. Kudos to the Liberty coaching staff, to the players, the fans and the community. Indeed Liberty Pride, that phrase which has become the byword of the school’s academic, artistic and athletic lifeblood, reminds us that we can all feel proud when we put our best effort forward no matter what the outcome.
In the Class D final, Eldred (4-6) fell to Chester 53-22. The Hambletonians set a Section 9 record for the most points in a title game and now embark on a quest to make it back to the state title game. They lost to Letchworth 27-0 in 2011. No Section 9 Class D team has ever won a state title.
Visit www.sportsinsights.smugmug.com for an album of photos from the Liberty-O’Neill game.