By TYLER HENRY
Little Apple Post contributor
Despite a 2-2 start, several early-season suspensions, and the loss of both reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Tyrie Adams and MVP Tracy Brooks, the Salina Liberty look like strong contenders again as the team heads into the final four games of their season.
When at full strength, the Liberty are a perfect 4-0 with big wins over two title rivals in Omaha and Billings, sitting in a tie for third going into the final month of the season at 4-2.
“We’ve faced a lot of adversity this year, some self-inflicted and some not, but I’ve been really proud of our guys for how they’ve handled that adversity,” Salina HC Heron O’Neal said. “We’ve shown a lot of resolve and that all starts with our ownership group, our coaching staff, and our players who have stepped up when we’ve needed them.”
The Liberty returned a ton of talent from last year’s 9-1 squad, and that veteran leadership has been an anchor for the team throughout some of this year's storms.
“It’s definitely crucial to have people like K-Hop and Travis Taylor to anchor your defense and to have guys like Kelvin McCoy on offense,” O’Neal said. “Those are the guys that understand the way we do things and they’ve helped some of the younger guys to add their own leadership to this team.”
Among the newcomers on offense, Salina has gotten a big boost from Aleki Tapa on the O-Line, as well as Tre Griffin and Tristan Gould who stepped up big in Tracy Brooks’ absence.
“Our running backs outside of Tracy didn’t come in with a lot of hype but Tre has been top two in the league in every big stat category and Tristan has given us that power run game and has been big on special teams,” he said.
Salina also had to fill a hole left by quarterback Tyrie Adams, who signed a CFL contract with the Ottowa Redblacks, becoming the third member of the Liberty and the 64th player in the 17-year career of Heron O’Neal to sign at the next level.
“I’m so happy for Tyrie,” O’Neal said. “This is one of the biggest reasons I’m here. My philosophy is to win games but it’s also to get these kids opportunities to play at the next level. This is part of the Salina Liberty way.”
In Adams’ stead, Salina has turned to rookie QB Vincent Espinoza who has looked sharp in his first two CIF starts, helping lead the team to two wins to begin his Liberty career.
While the offense has gotten the job done this season, it has once again been the defense that the Liberty hang their hat on as Salina boasts one of the most formidable groups in the league.
The Liberty allow the fewest points per game in the CIF (28) and are top three in the league in interceptions, fumbles recovered, sacks, and yards allowed both on the ground and through the air.
Much of that success can be attributed to the aforementioned leadership of Kendrick Harper and Travis Taylor, but the team has also gotten big production from Tron Folsom and Dewayne Autrey as the Salina secondary has tallied twelve picks already.
This year's playoff format will see the top six teams in the CIF make the postseason with the top two earning byes.
Going into the final four games Sioux City leads the way at 6-0 followed by 5-2 Southwest Kansas, 4-2 Salina and Billings, and 4-3 Omaha.
The Liberty will face a road gauntlet down the stretch with trips to Omaha on the 14th, Sioux City on the 21st, and SW Kansas on June 4th with one final home game coming against Topeka on May 28th.