Liberty use second half surge to secure first ever CIF title over Omaha

After gut-wrenching final play defeats in back-to-back Champions Bowls, the Salina Liberty put on a show in front of a massive home crowd, finally delivering the elusive CIF title to the city of Salina in a 38-34 win over the Omaha Beef.

This championship would not have been won without a fighting spirit cultivated by a team that time and time again was knocked to the mat, but which refused to stay down for the count.

“Salina deserves this, this ownership group deserves this, and the biggest crowd we’ve ever had in this building deserves this,” Liberty Head Coach Heron O’Neal said. They never stopped believing in us and we never gave up, we just kept coming and we brought this thing home for them.”

Throughout the 2022 campaign, the Liberty lost both the Offensive Rookie of the Year and the reigning MVP from their backfield. Salina faced injuries, suspensions, and a quarterback carousel that saw six different players take a snap under center.

In the title match, the Liberty faced even more adversity as the reigning champions from Omaha came out swinging, taking a 28-16 lead and possession into the second half.

Looking to press their advantage on the opening drive, the Beef lined up to go for it on fourth down deep in Salina territory, but the Liberty defense stood tall, lighting a fire that would burn for the rest of the half.

Salina immediately marched down the field and punched in their second touchdown of the day as Triston Gould knifed up the middle to find paydirt.

28-23 Omaha

Reinvigorated by the stop, the Salina secondary kicked things into overdrive, and on another fourth-down play for the Omaha offense Evan Ray sprang into action picking off Andrew Jackson for the first turnover of the day.

“Our secondary stepped it up in the second half and got the stops when we needed them,” O’Neal said. “Our D-Line got it done all night long and we made some adjustments offensively that gave us the edge.”

The teams traded stops putting the ball back in the hands of the long-sought successor Javin Kilgo, who had become the answer to the Liberty’s quarterback woes, tossing 13 TDs and just 3 picks through his first four career starts.

While many in Javin’s position would have let the moment get to them, Kilgo stayed cool under pressure, fully aware of the task at hand.

“I approached this game like any other,” he said. “People tend to psych themselves out when they hear the word championship. We executed, we did what we were supposed to do and we ended up victorious.”

After engineering a long drive, Kilgo connected with star wideout Demarius Washington on fourth and goal to give the Liberty their first lead since early in the first quarter.

31-28 Salina

Looking to take the air out of Salina’s sails, Andrew Jackson uncorked a deep ball to an open receiver in the opposite end zone, but at the last possible second Evan Ray came streaking in and snatched his second interception of the day much to the delight of the Liberty faithful.

Kilgo wasted no time lining up the nails around the Omaha coffin, finding Washington again for a monstrous touchdown to put the Champions Bowl a little further out of reach.

38-28 Salina

“Javin had never had the chance to be a starting quarterback before but when he did he made the most of it and I’m so proud of him,” O’Neal said. “This team had the confidence from day one and once we figured out our offense those guys really stood tall.”

The Beef would score again in the closing minute but it was too little too late and after recovering the onside kick, the realization began to sink in around Tony’s Pizza Events Center.

The Salina Liberty were finally CIF Champions.

Two years into their existence, the Liberty had just three total wins. In the Coach O era, that same franchise ripped off a record of 26-8 with an appearance in all three championship games, and now, a CIF title.

“Coach O’Neal was the guy we knew we needed to get to turn this ship around,” Liberty ownership member Dan Mendicina said. “When he’s in the room no matter how many points you’re down you know you’ve got a shot.”

The City of Salina was founded in 1858, it has seen just two sports titles in the 164 years that have followed.

In 2007, the Kansas Cagerz became the first under head coach Francis Flax, and 15 years later Flax adds another ring as GM of the Salina Liberty.

While many in Salina saw this win as a storybook ending to a tale that began with the Bombers in 2013, many others view it as a beginning for greater things still to come.

“We’re going to enjoy this for a little bit but in a few weeks we’re going to be looking ahead to 2023,” Mendicina said.