Kendrick Harper stood beside the makeshift stage in the middle of the field where his Salina Liberty were celebrating, confetti everywhere, and reflected on his indoor football career.
At age 36, after Liberty coach Heron O’Neal talked him into coming back for an 11th and final season, Harper was going out on top.
“Last year I had a salty taste,” Harper said of a heartbreaking one-point loss to Omaha in the 2021 Champions Bowl. “Coach told me the guys he was bringing in, a lot of veteran guys, and I just had to make sure I came back.”
He was glad he did. In a season where seemingly nothing came easy, the final chapter was no exception as the Liberty rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit to edge that same Omaha team, 38-34, and claim their first-ever Champions Indoor Football title at Tony’s Pizza Events Center.
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“We went through a lot of adversity, from the first game all the way to the end,” Harper said. “But we had the right core group of guys and we won. We won.”
Indeed, they did, and it took a stellar second-half effort across the board to get it done. Down 28-12 at intermission, the Liberty were a different team after the break.
Their No. 1-ranked defense, which gave up four straight first-half touchdowns, suddenly found its groove and the offense responded in kind.
After three straight defensive stops and a Tristan Gould touchdown run that cut the deficit to five points in the third quarter, the Liberty finally took the lead when Javin Kilgo found Demarius Washington for a 4-yard score on fourth down. A two-point conversion pass to Ed Smith made it 31-28 with 5 minutes, 35 seconds to go.
On Omaha’s next play, quarterback Andrew Jackson threw a deep ball under pressure and Evan Ray ran it down in the end zone for his second interception. What’s more, he returned it to the Beef 19-yard line.
The Liberty offense, which had failed to convert a fourth down in the first half, came through again from the 12-yard line with Kilgo once more slinging it to Washington to make it a two-possession game.
“My guy,” Kilgo said of Washington, who has been his favorite end-zone target since joining the Liberty late in the season. “When the game is on the line, throw it to No. 1. He never lets you down.”
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Neither, it turned out, did Ray, who missed last week’s semifinal victory over Billings with a dislocated toe. The interception to set up the final score was his second of the half.
“If you go back and watch all the games, literally from game one to 10, in the regular season, we would tend to come on slow like that, but in the second half we always came out and played really good football.
“I’ve always said that we’re definitely a second-half football team, and that’s when we play our best.”
That was definitely the case for the Liberty’s veteran secondary, which drew O’Neal’s wrath at halftime.
“I came in at halftime and I didn’t change anything,” O’Neal said. “I just went after my secondary as hard as I’ve ever went after any group this year, and they responded.
“That’s pretty much what it came down to. I came hard at that secondary and that was the only adjustment we made.”
Safety Dontra Matthews, who like Harper has been a part of all three Liberty championship games, agreed.
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“They threw some new stuff at us and showed us a different game plan,” Matthews said of the Beef. “But we just tightened up our coverage and that allowed our d-line to get more pressure on (Jackson).”
As the No. 2 seed heading into the playoffs, the Liberty already made history by advancing to the Champions Bowl for the third straight year. The last thing they wanted was to be the first in the league’s seven-year history to lose three in a row.
“I told them, we don’t want to be the Buffalo Bills,” O’Neal said of their NFL counterparts who once lost four straight Super Bowls.
At halftime, it appeared that was where they were headed.
“We came out a little lackadaisical, and it took the second half to really understand what we came here to do,” said defensive end Shaq Bradford, the former Kansas Wesleyan All-American. “We had to get back in the locker room and understand that this is the last game, whether we win or lose.
“We’re the No. 1 defense and we didn’t play like that in the second half.”
On offense, Kilgo finally found a rhythm and got the ball downfield to receivers Washington, Anthony Love and Smith. Gould and Tre Griffin took care of the running game, filling in for an injured Tracy Brooks, by each scoring a touchdown.
Brooks, the 2021 CIF most valuable player, reinjured the broken arm that forced him to miss much of the regular season, but Gould stepped in and rushed for 52 yards on 12 carries.
So what was the difference in the second half? Washington summed it up in a word
“Energy,” he said.
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It was the first championship in a long indoor career for Washington. For Matthews, Ray and Harper, who all had won titles previously in Wichita, it still was special.
“This has to be number one. This by far has to be No. 1,” said Harper, who announced his retirement on the spot. “This is it. I’m done.”
For O’Neal, who won three championships with the old Billings Outlaws in the National Indoor Football League (2006) and Indoor Football League (2009-10), this was his first CIF title.
“This was the most satisfying,” he said.