Sunrise Mountain holds off Liberty for 2nd straight year

Sunrise Mountain junior receiver Jay Anderson fends off Liberty junior cornerback Eli Pittman with a stiff arm during the North Peoria rivals' Sept. 8 showdown [Jacob Stank/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

Sunrise Mountain had its breakthrough win against its rival 2 miles up the street last year.

In retaining the crown for North Peoria Friday night, though, the Mustangs truly showed how far their program has come. The 28-25 Sunrise Mountain win was built on the back of a swarming defense and steady ground game.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly.

“We preach about how hard we practice, how much we run in practice, so we can  win games that are tough at the end,” Sunrise Mountain Coach Steve Decker said. “A game like this helps them believe what we talk about in practice. We were fresh at the end and it’s a testament to the work the kids put in.”

Liberty (2-1) made its now-trademarked late-game comeback, scoring with five minutes left as Ryan Bendle ran a play-action fake and connected with senior tight end Alec Moonier for a 16-yard touchdown. Sophomore tailback Jace Accurso kept his legs churning on a two-point try and the Lions were wishing three with five minutes left.

But two more Lions possessions fell far short of the end zone, with only one completion in eight pass attempts.

Entering the showdown riding high following two blowout wins, Liberty was left wondering where that team was early on.

“When you play a rivalry game you can throw everything out of the window. It’s about heart, execution and discipline. We’ve got to do better,” Liberty Coach Mark Smith said. “My job as the head football coach is to put a disciplined product out there that’s going to be able to perform. We weren’t very disciplined tonight. And they did a great job.”

Sunrise Mountain junior tailback Drake Flores breaks into the clear against Liberty on Sept. 8 [Jacob Stank/West Valley Preps]
The home team got the jump on the second play from scrimmage as senior cornerback Arrick Dowe picked off Bendle’s first pass of the night and returned it to the Lions’ 43. Five plays later — on third and goal from the 9 — junior quarterback Keegan Freid scrambled toward the visitors’ sideline and lunged to break the plane just inside the pylon.

A shovel pass for two to senior receiver Angel Ruiz gave Sunrise Mountain (3-0) a 8-0 lead.

Following two more stalled drives, a turnover put Liberty in business. Junior tailback Drake Flores dropped it and senior linebacker Colby Rooker fell on the ball at the Mustangs’ 47.

Liberty stalled in the red zone to end the first quarter. Junior kicker Kolter Nelson converted a 34-yard field goal to open the second quarter.

The Mustangs’ big play duo of Flores and Ruiz began what would be the defining story of the night. Flores broken loose for a 41-yard gain.

On the next play, a blown Liberty coverage left Ruiz alone and able to walk in for a 29-yard touchdown toss from Freid. On the two-point attempt, the quarterback stumbled, so Sunrise Mountain led 14-3.

“The first one was a great call. The safeties bit down on the play action and I was wide open,” Ruiz said.

Two consecutive kickoff returns kicked the game into second gear.

Senior Greg Tremble received a gigantic hole from Liberty’s return unit and flew down the field for a 97-yard return touchdown.

Liberty senior Greg Tremble races down the field for a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown in the second quarter at Sunrise Mountain Sept. 8. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
Mustangs junior Jy Anderson answered immediately with a 54-yard return of his own. A personal foul on Liberty gave the home team the ball at the Lions’ 29. Senior defensive end Dylan Cutting stopped that drive by sacking Freid on fourth down.

Again, the Mustangs defense was equal to the task. Junior linebacker Bo Moore came through on a jailbreak blitz and smacked Bendle, forcing a punt.

Flores then broke into the secondary, this time for an even 50 yards. Senior linebacker/fullback Gavin Chaddock waltzed in for an easy two-yard touchdown on the next play.

“The offensive line did great. All my yards go to them,” Flores said.

Junior safety Ryan Puskas gave the Lions a last chance before halftime with his interception. But senior linebacker Brody Webb sacked Bendle to force another punt.

Ruiz faked out another Lions defender and dashed for 62 yards on a reception just before half. However, the Mustangs missed a 25-ard field goal attempt in the dying seconds.

A dominant Sunrise Mountain defense held Liberty under 100 total yards in the first half and did not allow the Lions only touchdown to that point.

“It’s the best I’ve seen, and I’ve been here eight years,” Decker said. “Our defense really stepped up. That’s a great football team (we played).”

A fourth-down conversion and runs of 11 yards by Freid and 20 by Flores to start the second half gave Sunrise Mountain a chance to put the game away. But a missed connection on a backwards swing pass cost the offense 22 yards.

Freid regrouped and ran for an apparent 29-yard touchdown on fourth and nine. But a holding call wiped that out and forced a punt.

“Drake’s very shifty and our o-line really stepped up. I probably should have went to them more in the second half. That’s my fault,” Decker said. “That’s really a safe play for us, a swing pass out of the backfield. We have second and one on the 9. It’s usually not a lateral.”

Finally, the Lions’ offense put a drive together. Bendle connected with senior D.J. Mumin on a 47-yard bomb. Then on third down and 14, the quarterback scrambled for 24.

Puskas checked in and took the direct snap. He faked a reverse handoff and ran straight up the gut for a five-yard score. Liberty had new life, trailing 21-17 with 3:34 left in the third quarter.

“I though the kids played really hard. That’s not the thing. It’s just being able to make those plays,” Smith said. “You learn more from your losses than your wins. We can’t let this be a hangover. We’ve got a tough one (against Verrado) next week.”

Another Puskas interception seemed to tilt momentum further in favor of the visitors. Instead the offense lost 13 yards in three plays.

Ruiz came up with one more highlight-reel play. He took a quick out from Freid, lost a defender with a spin move and dashed down his sideline for a 54-yard backbreaking touchdown.

“You have to really key on their weak points (over pursuit). We faked on runs with pulling linemen and set up the run-pass option,” Ruiz

Bendle responded with four short pass completions to position his team for the touchdown to Moonier.

Once again, though, the defense clamped down. Sunrise Mountain is now 2-0 since this rivalry resumed and can start to focus on bigger goals in 4A play.

“It’s rivalry week so obviously it’s huge. Technically, it’s one of the bigger games for the fans. But for us it’s just another chance to do our thing,” Ruiz said.

Liberty senior quarterback Ryan Bendle tries to get outside on a scramble against the Sunrise Mountain defense Sept. 8 [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Liberty                      0   10   7  8  –   25

Sunrise Mountain     8   13   0  7 –   28


SM – Keegan Freid 9 run (Angel Ruiz pass from Freid)

L – Kolter Nelson 34 FG

SM – Ruiz 29 pass from Freid (run failed)

L – Greg Tremble 97 kickoff return (Nelson kick)

SM – Gavin Chaddock 2 run (Cameron Burns kick)

L – Ryan Puskas 5 run (Nelson kick)

SM – Ruiz 54 pass from Freid (Burns kick)

L – Alec Moonier 16 pass from Ryan Bendle (Jace Accurst run)


L – Puskas finished with two interceptions, a rushing touchdown and 29 yards on 5 carries. Bendle ran for 46 yards  and was 11 for 23 for 138 yards and a score.

SM – Drake Flores gained 176 yards on 18 carries. Ruiz caught 5 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns.

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