Liberty Ranch’s wing-T offense features four rushers with at least 600 yards and a pair of 6-foot-2 receivers capable of making big plays if defenses want to concentrate on stopping the run.
But there is no doubt who the MVP for these upstart Hawks is: No. 54.
That’s 9-year-old Timmy Schroeder, a member of the Jr. Hawks youth program whose jersey is attached to the Liberty Ranch flag as the team takes the field before games. He’s the source of inspiration for the Galt-based Hawks, who are flying high after an 0-4 start to the season that coincided with young Timmy’s diagnosis with T-cell lymphoma and a switch from the pistol offense to the wing-T.
Now 8-4, fourth-seeded Liberty Ranch squares off with No. 3 Sierra (7-5) in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship game on Saturday. Like Sierra, it is the first section final for Liberty Ranch.
The Hawks garnered the Sierra Valley Conference title and are the only league champions in this wide-open bracket. Though they’ve embraced their role as underdogs in the last two months, coach Warren Schroeder, Timmy’s father, said his team is motivated by other factors.
“We are all happy to be where we are,” Schroeder said. “We know it’s a big moment for the team, the school and the community, but we’re not going to let it be too big for us. People had written us off by Game 4, so at this point the kids feel fortunate and humble for where they are at.
“Right now they’re playing for something bigger than a championship. It’s bigger than just a football game for them; it’s about family and pride. Since Timmy was diagnosed after Game 4, it has really made a change in our attitude since.”
Schroeder took time off from teaching and coaching, turning the team over to interim co-head coaches Bryan Golder and Kevin Tibbetts. The coaching triumvirate decided to revamp the offense after it scored just 14 points in each of its first three losses and was shut out 38-0 at Hughson. Schroeder also lauded assistant coach Jerry Colombini for his work on the wing-T crash course.
Liberty Ranch was held to 65 rushing yards against Hughson, but in Week 5 three backs scampered for more than 100 apiece in a 40-21 win over Rio Americano. There has been no stopping the Hawks since, as they averaged 30.4 points in league, stomped Dixon 45-22 in their postseason opener and outlasted eighth-seeded Los Banos 44-42 in the semifinals.
Schroeder called it a “dramatic transformation.” It’s not the same team that kicked off the season with a 20-14 loss to Lathrop, a Valley Oak League and Manteca Unified rival of Sierra’s and the top seed in Division IV. Lathrop was upset by Los Banos 30-29 in the first round.
“Through four games we knew that we had trouble matching the scheme with the personnel,” Schroeder said. “We have some talented players on the defensive side of the ball, and (the wing-T) has allowed them to stay off the field longer.”
The wing-T has also allowed for more skill-position players to be involved on the attack. Gavin Westlund (741 yards, 10 touchdowns), Kamil Jones (714, six), Saul Lomeli (679, eight) and Ibn Frazier (663, four) have done well in sharing the load.
Quarterback Rick Van Houten has also thrived when called upon. In the shootout with Los Banos, he rushed for 119 yards while completing 4 of 7 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns to Christian Torgerson.
“Los Banos is physical and way bigger than our team,” Schroeder said. “I thought they executed pretty well in shutting down our run. A lot of teams try to force us to go to the air, and luckily we were able to respond. Rick did a great job of throwing to his receivers.”
Liberty Ranch led 27-14 at halftime but needed some big stops at the end to secure the win. They first stuffed QB Adam Herrera, who had a hand in six touchdowns, on a two-point conversion attempt, and Frazier intercepted a pass with 14 seconds remaining.
“They really gave us a battle,” Schroeder said.
The Tigers also gave Liberty Ranch another look at a spread offense, similar to what it will face against Sierra on Saturday. Another spread team of note is SVC rival Union Mine, which the Hawks handled, 35-21. Sierra began its postseason run with a 24-21 win over the Diamondbacks of El Dorado.
Schroeder is impressed by Mark Vicente, Sierra’s blossoming signal caller who has completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 2,069 yards and 16 touchdowns while rushing for nine more scores. The Hawks are also mindful of running back Mark Paule Jr., who remains productive after a junior season in which he amassed more than 2,000 yards and was one of the state’s leading scorers with 45 touchdowns.
“Having faced similar teams hopefully helps us out, but every spread team has their own wrinkles,” Schroeder said. “(Sierra’s) will be a little bit different than what we’ve already seen. They do a very good job with balancing their offense and it puts a lot of pressure on the defense and it will be a challenge for us.
“Defensively, they have good size up front, they fly to the ball and you can tell their kids really enjoy playing the sport. They are really well coached on both sides of the ball.”