The undefeated Patriots jumped out to an early lead on the Bulldogs and held on for a spot at Gridiron Classic.
YAKIM A — Respond, don’t react — that’s one of the codes Liberty High School football players are expected to live by.
Isaiah Owens took it to heart Saturday, answering a bloody lip — and an offensive lip-off — with a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions to help seal the Patriots’ 35-26 victory over Ellensburg in a Class 2A state semifinal at Zaepfel Stadium.
Liberty (12-0) plays Archbishop Murphy (13-0) for the championship Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Tacoma Dome. It is the Pats’ first trip to the finals since 2009, when they lost the 3A title to Bellevue.
Owens, a senior defensive back who came into the game with just one pick, said he was hit in the mouth and was the target of a racial slur after making a tackle on the Ellensburg sideline late in the third quarter. As teammates pulled him away, he received a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. But he quickly regrouped.
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“I know my team needs me and I couldn’t cost my team,” he said. “I had to regain my composure and go out there and do what we prepared for.”
Linebacker Khalil Manning accounted for two more turnovers with a pair of fumble recoveries — returning the first one 34 yards for a touchdown after Jackson Wray came up with the strip.
“He popped it out, it landed and I scooped and scored,” Manning said. “We practice this drill every day.”
That helped the Patriots bolt to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter and they parlayed the next Ellensburg miscue — an uncovered pooch kick to start the third period — into another score for a 35-7 advantage.
The Bulldogs (11-2), who had won 11 in a row since a loss to Class 1A power Royal and were in the semifinals for the third time in four years, made a furious rally.
“If we eliminate one of those turnovers it’s a different game,” Ellensburg coach Randy Affholter said. “We made good adjustments defensively at halftime and found our rhythm on offense. We got ourselves back to where we needed to be, but we just buried ourselves too much.”
Liberty coach Steve Valach wasn’t comfortable with the 28-point lead.
“You know a team like them, they’re going to come back and battle and they did,” he said. “They got back in it, they got back in it. But, boy, our kids battled.”
And, boy, did they click offensively early on. Cameron Spaeth bolted 75 yards for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball, which came on the Patriots’ second possession. Quarterback Austin Regis hit Dullin Hayden with a 47-yard pass on the opening play of the second quarter, leading to a 5-yard TD run by Jacob Thoresen.
Then came Manning’s fumble return two plays later. And after Ellensburg got on the board with a 5-yard TD pass from Bryce Helgeson to Major Moffat, Liberty responded with a 63-yard drive capped by Austin Regis’ keeper with 5.7 seconds on the clock.
The Liberty defense did a lot of bending after that, but ultimately didn’t break. Helgeson was a handful, passing for two TDs and running for the other two, accounting for 224 yards of total offense. Running back Mason Sherwood carried 30 times for 119 yards.
Regis said he has lived for this day since watching the 2009 title game as a fifth-grader.
“This is a dream come true,” he said.