By Sam Ganczaruk
For West Valley Preps
Liberty’s offense has overwhelmed opponents all season and Friday was no different.
The host No. 3-seeded Lions quick-strike play finally subdued a feisty visitor in No. 6 Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge, 42-28, in 5A quarterfinal action.
Liberty (11-1 overall) will face No. 2 Centennial (11-1) next Friday at Deer Valley High School in Glendale with a right to play for the 5A State Championship on the line.
This will be a rematch from Oct. 27 when Liberty scored in the final seconds to top Centennial 21-19. Ironwood Ridge (8-4) did everything it could to scrap the encore between the two Peoria juggernauts.
“In the first half, thank God we had an offense to keep us in this thing,” Liberty coach Mark Smith said. “I was proud of the way our guys fought in the second half and we got some stops, that was the key. I didn’t think they were going to stop us.”
Liberty and Ironwood Ridge traded punches in the first half but did it in contrasting styles.
The Lions used their no-huddle offense to quickly go up and down the field scoring touchdowns while the Nighthawks methodically pounded the ball on the ground hoping to wear out the favorite.
At halftime both strategies seemed to be working, as the game was deadlocked 21-21.
Liberty was always trailing in the first half as senior quarterback Ryan Bendle kept putting points on the board. Bendle broke off a 48-yard TD run, picked up a fumbled exchanged for a 1-yard scoring scamper and threw a 46-yard strike to senior receiver Dylan Bieber just before halftime.
“In big games we seem to play well and it is a great quality to have in a team,” Bendle said. “We knew they were a good offense so we needed to help our defense out.”
The Lions took their first lead on their second drive of the second half when Bendle found Bieber again for a 36-yard scoring pass to go up 28-21 with 3:07 left in the quarter.
“We were trying to score on every drive and we knew our defense would stop them eventually,” Bieber said. “I definitely felt confident at the end of the game, I knew we had them if we kept making plays.”
The defense forced Ironwood Ridge to punt on its next possession and Bendle wasted no time putting the preverbal nail in the coffin as the signal caller found Alec Moonier streaking down the middle of the field for a 71-yard touchdown pass.
“They made some plays and were able to separate from us,” Ironwood Ridge coach Matt Johnson said. “We knew they were super explosive and our hope was to grind the game down and just shorten it. It worked for a while. Our defense made some plays here and there but not enough to come out with the win.”
The Nighthawks scored with 4:50 remaining but Liberty answered on its next drive as the Lions milked the clock handing the ball off to Bieber and eventually capping the drive with a one-yard dive by sophomore Jace Accurso.“We can score quick and score fast, that was kind of the difference there,” Smith said.
Bendle finished the night with a game-high 122 yards rushing on 12 carries. He also completed six of 10 passes for 182 yards.
LIBERTY 42, IRONWOOD RIDGE 28
Score by quarters
Ironwood Ridge 7 14 0 7 – 28
Liberty 7 14 7 14 – 42
IR – Nathan Grijalva 2 run (Trevor Parry Kick)
L – Ryan Bendle 48 run (Kolter Nelson kick)
IR – Noah Pallanes 23 pass from Heath Beemiller (Parry kick)
L – Bendle 1 run (Nelson Kick)
IR – Nick Brahler 22 run (Parry Kick)
L – Dylan Bieber 46 pass from Bendle (Nelson Kick)
L – Bieber 36 pass from Bendle (Nelson Kick)
L – Alec Moonier 71 pass from Bendle (Nelson Kick)
IR – C.J. Mustain 1 run (Parry Kick)
L – Jace Accurso 1 run (Nelson Kick)