Demarius Washington's circus catch sparks resurgent Salina Liberty offense at Sioux City

Demarius Washington wasn't showing off. Given a choice, he would have cradled the 27-yard touchdown pass from Javin Kilgo in both arms and celebrated quietly.

Thanks to a defender tugging at his left arm, that didn't happen.

Racing down the middle to the end zone, Washington instead extended his right arm and made a one-handed, backhand grab for the ages.

Washington's third-quarter score, followed by a 7-yarder early in the fourth period, gave the Salina Liberty the separation they needed Saturday night to walk out of the Tyson Events Center with a 39-30 Champions Indoor Football road victory over the Sioux City Bandits.

"Simply amazing," Liberty coach Heron O'Neal said.

That pretty much summed it up for the Liberty in general, as their slumping offense came to life in the second half of a game that was never truly in doubt from the end of the third quarter on.

With the victory, the Liberty improved to 5-3 and vaulted into a third-place tie with Omaha and Southwest Kansas, which both had the week off. It was the first loss for Sioux City, which fell to 7-1.

The big difference for the Liberty was their embattled offense, which put up 30 second-half points.

Kilgo, one of two new quarterbacks brought in by the Liberty late in the week, completed 14 of 18 passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns, running back Tristan Gould punished Sioux City for 66 yards and a score on 16 carries and Washington and Anthony Love combined for 11 catches.

"No complaints here," said O'Neal, who had called out the offense after the past two games — a defense-driven 34-19 victory over Billings and a 14-11 loss last week at Omaha. "(Kilgo) played really well, our line protected well and we ran the ball with authority with Tristan.

"Tristan was definitely the bell cow running back all night, and when we were able to balance our offense with the run, it really helped out Javin."

But back to Washington's catch, which came with 2 minutes, 35 seconds left in the third quarter and pushed the Liberty's lead to 23-6.

"That was one to remember for sure," said Washington, who stretched every inch of his 6-foot-5 frame to make the grab. "I was shielding off the defender a little bit, but he was my (left side) tugging. I was practicing one hand throughout the warmup — and I do that a lot — for times like that.

"Like I always tell the young and upcoming receivers, you never know when that time's going to come, and God willing, that was my time for the one-hander. If I could have pulled my other hand up, I probably would have, but it was one of those times that I just tried to trust and believe that when the ball hit my palm, I was going to squeeze it."

O'Neal, who first coached Washington in 2016 with Colorado of the Indoor Football League, brought him and the 6-5 Love in this season specifically to give his quarterbacks a pair of bigger, athletic targets.

"D-Wash is getting comfortable with what we're doing here, and him being a leader for us is huge," O'Neal said of Washington, who joined the team midseason and has progressively gotten more involved in the offense. "He's starting to turn the corner."

Washington had seven catches for 115 yards and Love four for 29, plus a 10-yard fumble return for a touchdown at the end of the first half. The Liberty also got a 3-yard touchdown pass from Ed Smith, who at 5-9 flew over the boards and into the stands early in the second half to answer a Sioux City score.

But back to Washington's catch, which came with 2 minutes, 35 seconds left in the third quarter and pushed the Liberty's lead to 23-6.

"That was one to remember for sure," said Washington, who stretched every inch of his 6-foot-5 frame to make the grab. "I was shielding off the defender a little bit, but he was my (left side) tugging. I was practicing one hand throughout the warmup — and I do that a lot — for times like that.

"Like I always tell the young and upcoming receivers, you never know when that time's going to come, and God willing, that was my time for the one-hander. If I could have pulled my other hand up, I probably would have, but it was one of those times that I just tried to trust and believe that when the ball hit my palm, I was going to squeeze it."

O'Neal, who first coached Washington in 2016 with Colorado of the Indoor Football League, brought him and the 6-5 Love in this season specifically to give his quarterbacks a pair of bigger, athletic targets.

"D-Wash is getting comfortable with what we're doing here, and him being a leader for us is huge," O'Neal said of Washington, who joined the team midseason and has progressively gotten more involved in the offense. "He's starting to turn the corner."

Washington had seven catches for 115 yards and Love four for 29, plus a 10-yard fumble return for a touchdown at the end of the first half. The Liberty also got a 3-yard touchdown pass from Ed Smith, who at 5-9 flew over the boards and into the stands early in the second half to answer a Sioux City score.

Then there was Kilgo, a previously a backup in both the IFL and the National Arena League. He came on late in the first quarter for starter Curry Parham, the other new addition to the roster, and lit it up.

"As the game wore on, he got more and more comfortable," O'Neal said of Kilgore, who had his first practice with the team on Thursday. "I just can't wait for him to get a couple of practices under his belt so he can take off.

"Coming in with one practice and to play like that, in a different league, him doing that is what we've been waiting for."

First-half turning point
The Liberty also benefitted from a costly Sioux City mistake to close out the first half.

After Jimmy Allen's field goal broke a scoreless tie with 3 seconds on the clock, Sioux City's Fred Bruno fumbled the ensuing kickoff at his 10-yard line and Love scooped it up for a touchdown and a 9-0 halftime advantage.

"That was huge," O'Neal said. "That was a nine-point swing in four seconds."

Another Sioux City special teams miscue following Smith's touchdown catch, gifted the Liberty one more point, when the Bandits fumbled the ball out of bounds in the end zone for a rouge.

Defense stout again
The Liberty's league-leading defense had some issues closing out the game, allowing 24 points in the fourth quarter and a long touchdown pass to open the second half, but still held the CIF's No. 1 scoring offense 21 points below its average.


And two of the fourth-quarter scores were set up by a long kickoff return and penalties that gave Sioux City's offense a short field. Salina outgained the Bandits 245 yards to 153.

"We had a couple of breakdowns and a couple of mistakes, and our defensive line had a couple of things that they need to clean up as well," O'Neal said. "But other than that, they played pretty well.

"(Linebacker) Tron Folsom had a fantastic game. He was making tackles all over the field and each game he's getting better and better, being the enforcer we need in there."

Folsom led the Liberty with 15 tackles.

With the victory, the Liberty clinched a playoff berth in the CIF's expanded six-team postseason format. If they beat Topeka at home this Saturday at Tony's Pizza Events Center and then end the regular season with a victory over Southwest Kansas in Dodge City the following week, they could still be the No. 2 seed and get a first-round bye.

Billings currently sits in second place at 6-2, but has to face Sioux City this Friday. Should there be a tie for second at 7-3, the Liberty would have the tiebreakers against both Billings and Omaha.