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Falcon junior running back scores four touchdowns, Liberty jumps Wildcats in first half

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - LIberty juniors Sam Romeo and Aidan Maloney celebrate a Romeo touchdown against Westview.

In the Metro League, where respect is earned not given and the big, bad Beaverton-area powers tend to dominate the conference landscape, sometimes the Hillsboro schools get lost in the shuffle.

Through no fault of their own, Century and Liberty often don't get their due regard, especially in football. Though the Beaverton-based coaching staffs frequently shower praise on the league's relative newcomers, when it comes down to state-wide headlines and hoopla the Jaguars and Falcons recurrently get the proverbial back page.

Yet, in the past three weeks, Liberty's program-wide ability and aptitude have come to the light. And if the Falcons didn't have the Metro's attention before the season, they certainly do now.

For the second consecutive game, Liberty put a hurting on a Beaverton-area giant, giving Westview an all-encompassing, three-phases-of-football 45-22 defeat on Friday night at Liberty High School.

"We don't want to be looked at as 'the little brother', we want to be the big team in Metro this year," Liberty senior defensive lineman Dylan Thygersen said. "We don't want to say we're the 5A team transferring up to 6A. We want to be in Metro and be the great 6A that we know we can be. We want to be us and represent."

Liberty belongs in Metro and 6A for that matter, undoubtedly. Their addition to the conference two years ago has only bolstered what many still consider a mega conference on the state scene. And in a batty sort of season where three-touchdown comebacks have become commonplace from Sunset to Southridge to Westview, the Falcons have found their footing as a steadfast contender capable of beating the perennial juggernauts.

On the heels of handing Beaverton a 41-12 bashing, the Falcons flashed the kind of all-around talent that has Liberty tied for third place in the conference with just three games to go. Liberty junior running back Sam Romeo was an amped-up roadrunner in the first half, scoring a quartet of touchdowns in three different ways against Westview: through the air, on the ground and on a 92-yard kickoff return.

Liberty scored 26 of its 39 first-half points off four Westview turnovers including a pair of picks that were conveyed to touchdowns from running back Aidan Maloney and running back Bryan Bafaro in just over three and a half minutes of action to go up 13-0 early in the first quarter. A Westview turnover on downs led to a long Romeo touchdown catch when Norman rolled right and lifted a spiral a wide open Romeo who sprinted through the miscommunicating Wildcat secondary, caught the rock with nobody around and ran to the house for six.

"I was really surprised," Romeo said. "I was watching the (cornerback) and he bit on the comeback route...there probably wasn't a guy within 10, 15 yards of me. I was just waiting for everybody to come celebrate with me in the end zone."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Liberty junior linebacker Isaac Tsolak makes a tackle against Westview.

Later in the second quarter, Romeo took a sweep handoff around the left side, let fullback Jed Steinhoff clear the way out in front of him, made a nifty little cut inside and skated 24 yards untouched to pay dirt to extend Liberty's lead to 26-0 with 9:39 left in the second quarter.

"I had linemen running out in front me to block, but there was nobody to block," Romeo said with a laugh. "Everybody did their part and it was just a super good team effort. When I was running I could see the holes really clear, so really the credit goes to the offensive line making the holes wide for me to run through."

On the next possession, Westview junior quarterback Cielo Del Rosario couldn't find anyone open, so he tucked the ball and took off, nimbly knifing into the end zone from seven yards out to get Westview on the board, 26-7 with 6:02 left in the half.

Romeo, however, answered the bell in a big way on the ensuing kickoff. Catching the ball around the eight-yard line, Romeo found an alley along the left side of the Wildcat kickoff coverage unit, hit the gap with a bolt of speed, hightailed it to the left sideline and was gone, 92 yards to the house for the lightning-quick response to make it 33-7.

At Liberty's walk-through on Thursday, Romeo said the Falcons' scout team gave the same exact kick that Westview booted his way on Friday night. The ball landed at the eight-yard line and just like his coaches told him on Thursday, Romeo ripped through the left side of the Wildcat kickoff coverage with a North-South scamper to the open field.

The junior all-purpose back was sensational, scoring on the ground twice, through the air and on special teams. Each time Liberty came up with a big takeaway, it was Romeo who made the Wildcats pay, capitalizing on the found opportunities with huge chunk plays that were simultaneously instantly impactful and backbreaking. With just over five minutes remaining in the second quarter, Liberty senior linebacker Yousef Koborsi recovered a fumble around midfield and on the very next play Romeo took another handoff, wasn't touched as he booked it to the second level thanks to his offensive line, and simply outraced the Wildcat defense to the paint for another score to make it 39-7.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview senior running back Arturo Gutierrez tries to break through a number of Liberty tackles.

When Westview didn't turn the ball over, the offense moved the ball efficiently. Del Rosario, wide receiver Matt Imper, and running backs Arturo Gutierrez and EJ Broussard all found success. Del Rosario hit Imper for a nine-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter in-between Romeo's scores. And, to the Wildcats credit, they were never completely out of the game, specifically in the second half. Broussard fell on a fumble at the Falcon six-yard line with a little over eight minutes to go in the third quarter. Westview defense forced a turnover on downs with 3:42 to go, to set up a short field at its own 43. And on 3 and 22, Del Rosario bought extra time with his legs as Liberty's pass rush converged around him and threw up and alley-oop to Michael Evan Williamson who out-jumped a Falcon defensive back for the catch and subsequent 69-yard rumble to the end zone. Rosario found Gutierrez for the two-point try to bring Westview within 39-22 with 2:35 left in the third. And Josh Moreno came away with an interception on the first play of the fourth quarter to keep the Wildcats within striking range. Whatever defensive adjustments Westview made at halftime to quell Liberty's clinical execution clearly had an effect in the second half.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview junior quarterback Cielo Del Rosario makes a throw downfield versus Liberty.

However, in the first 24 minutes of action, Westview had no response for Liberty's instantaneous, turbo-charged two-way brand of football. The Falcons' torturous spread, multiple read-option attack that looks like a mix of an old-school Wing-T formation and a new age no-huddle scheme had the Wildcats defense dizzy and out of sorts. And with the Liberty defense stepping up to the plate and getting the ball back to Romeo, Norman and company, the Falcons were able to flummox the Cats with their various slight-of-hand fakes, motions, jet sweeps, counters, and dives. Liberty finished the game with 417 total yards, 341 of which came from its rushing attack.

"Our offense is very diverse," Romeo said. "We have so many formations that we can run every single play out of. It's super hard to defend, I think. Westview couldn't wrap their heads around how to stop our fakes and our offense early on. The defense stuck to them while the offense kept driving it up."

Thygersen was a terror on defense, sacking Del Rosario three times including twice in the fourth quarter. Sophomore cornerback Jaxson Lake's first-quarter interception set up Bafaro's first score of the game. Juniors Isaac Tsolak, Nikolaus Reitzug and Aidan Maloney, among others, all chipped in timely plays on defense and helped limit Westview to 326 total yards of offense.

"We were all gas, no brakes," Thygersen said. "Our coaches had us well-prepared and schemed up."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview senior lineman Jaquay Rucker and Liberty tackle Cruz Hulsey lock horns on Friday.

Ultimately, the large first-half deficit was too much to overcome for Westview. Needing a flawless fourth quarter to erase that 17-point deficit, the Wildcats had a punt blocked by Liberty junior Jacob Clark, went three-and-out on their next drive and watched as Bafaro pounded home an 11-yard touchdown to essentially ice the game.

Both Beaverton and Westview are two of Metro's more highly respected contenders, squads that reached the 6A quarterfinals and second round, respectively, a year ago. And the Falcons have had their way with both in relatively hassle-free fashion. Liberty faces another great opportunity to take down a Metro squad when it faces Southridge on the road next week.

"We practice like it's a game every single day, and I think our practices are actually harder than the games — that's why we just come out and have fun," Thygersen said. "We're clicking, but we still have work to do."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Westview freshman EJ Montgomery recovers a fumble against Liberty.

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