By TYLER HENRY
Little Apple Post contributor
After a much-needed bye, the Salina Liberty sit in a familiar position as they prepare to host a CIF semifinal game for a third consecutive season.
Their opponent this time around comes in the form of the Billings Outlaws, a team the Liberty split the season series winning the more recent contest 34-19 in May.
Billings began their playoff run in Montana last week with a 49-40 win over Wyoming in the quarterfinals and will be hungry to make a deep run in their inaugural CIF season.
The winner of this game will advance to the seventh annual Champions Bowl to take on either Sioux City or Omaha in a bracket where all four teams have what it takes to claim a national title.
“Any one of these teams can walk away with the championship,” Liberty head coach Heron O’Neal said. “Everyone has beaten each other and there’s no weak team but there’s also not really a juggernaut in my opinion.”
Salina entered the postseason with the best scoring defense in the league, holding opponents to just 25 points per game, while Billings boasts the second-best scoring offense putting up 45 on average.
Much of that production has been the result of quarterback Charles McCullum, whose 40 passing touchdowns are 13 clear of the next best mark in the league.
16 of those have been hauled in by league-leading wide reciever Tyron Laughinghouse, who has gashed opposing secondaries all season long.
“Billings has a ton of talent and a stockpiled roster with a who’s who of indoor football,” O’Neal said. “They’ve got some great former NFL talent but we’ve seen them before and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
While Salina has hung their hats on defense, the offense has come together in the past few weeks as well thanks to the addition of new QB1 Javin Kilgo and the return of reigning MVP Tracy Brooks to the backfield.
In a season that saw the Liberty start four different quarterbacks, Kilgo has been just what the doctor ordered, tossing 11 touchdowns to only one pick in his first three games.
“I’m supremely confident in Javin,” O’Neal said. “The schedule makers didn’t give us a creampuff schedule and that allowed him to see and compete against some of the best teams in our league. He may be new but he’s battle-tested and he brings championship experience.”
This game could also be the first time that Kilgo, Brooks, Fast Ed Smith, and Demarius Washington all share the field, turning Salina’s offense into a powder keg with the potential to explode for monster numbers if they can continue playing mistake-free football on Saturday.
“We can’t turn the ball over and expect to win against any of these teams that are left,” he said. “Billings has a great offense and we can’t lean on our defense to make too many plays.”
After falling short titles on the final play of the last two Champions Bowls, emotions will be running high for this Liberty playoff run as many veterans hope to end their career with the first ring in Salina’s history.
“We have to rely on the experience that we had and the experience that we brought in,” O’Neal said. “Some of these guys know that this might be their last game and we have to handle the emotions of that and play for our fellow man out there regardless of who we’re up against.”
Kickoff between the Liberty and Outlaws is set for 6:30 pm at Tony’s Pizza Events Center in Salina and as always the game can be heard on KINA (910 AM or 107.5 FM) courtesy of Eagle Radio.