116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
NORTH LIBERTY — For the first time in its football program history, Iowa City Liberty is a playoff victor.
The fifth-ranked Lightning fought off a ferocious rushing attack to seize control in the second half, pulling away from No. 10 Webster City, 24-14, in a Class 4A first-round game Friday night at Liberty.
“Making history for the school, it feels surreal,” Liberty defensive back Amari Thigpen said. “I just want to keep it going.”
“It means the world to me,” Liberty Coach James Harris said. “I’m just so proud of our guys and so thankful for our coaching staff. We’ve got kids who work their butts off to be here.”
The Lightning (9-1) had to get through Bob Howard’s vaunted single wing attack. Howard entered the night with 364 victories over 43 years as head coach at Scranton, Sigourney-Keota and Webster City, good for the fifth-most wins all-time in Iowa.
The styles couldn’t have contrasted more. Liberty, behind junior quarterback Graham Beckman, slung it all over the field. The Lynx treat a forward pass like a trick play. Webster City (6-4) countered with a three-headed rushing attack. Quarterback Ty McKinney and halfbacks Jaxon Cherry and CJ Hisler took turns attacking the Liberty defense, keeping the Lightning on their toes with direct snaps and misdirection. Cherry, who entered the night with 1,664 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground, added to those tallies in the first half.
The night seemed to be starting off well for Liberty. Beckman led the Lightning deep into Webster City territory at the 22, but a reverse lost 6 yards and the drive stalled out.
The Lynx hit the Liberty defense hard. Hinson broke loose for 41 yards and three quick-hitters from Cherry netted 27. Webster City was into the end zone on seven runs, covering 80 yards, giving the Lynx a 7-0 lead with 4:48 left in the first quarter.
The next Liberty drive ended with three straight incompletions at the Lynx 13. Webster City continued to blow by the Lightening front seven, but Liberty recovered a McKinney fumble at its own 41.
The third Liberty trip in Lynx territory proved more fruitful. Beckman connected with Wyatt Williams, who narrowly beat single coverage and hauled in a perfectly thrown ball for a 29-yard touchdown. The score was tied 7-7 with 22 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Both offenses continued to find success in the second quarter, but the Lightening were slowly calibrating to the Webster City rushing attack. The Lynx turned it over on downs at the Liberty 34 and ran out of time following a 6-yard loss on the half’s final possession.
“I think it just comes to getting used to it,” Harris said. “(Webster City) ran what we ran in practice but our scout look can’t mimic that. They have a lot of guys going both ways. We have a lot of guys platooning. It started happening. Once we started spilling our blocks it was a lot better.”
The game’s most important sequence came early in the third quarter. Facing fourth-and-3 at the Liberty 43, Thigpen broke through the line and dropped Hisler for a 7-yard loss.
“Me and my teammates have been watching film,” Thigpen said. “I just saw how they were lined up. I just went out and made a big play.”
Two plays later, Beckman found Lucas Meyer for a 43-yard touchdown.
On the ensuing possession, Trey Gregoire picked off McKinney, leading to a 29-yard Hayden Saul field goal and a 17-7 Liberty lead.
The Lynx weren’t done. Hisler found space for a 36-yard burst and Cherry capped the quick drive with a 17-yard touchdown. It was the first, and only successful drive that the Lynx had in the second half.
After forcing a punt, Liberty took over at its own 3 with 1:20 left in the third. The Lightning proceeded to march 97 yards down field, largely on the strength of tough running from Owen Drapeaux. Gregoire’s 1-yard run reestablished the 10-point advantage.
The Lynx turned it over on downs twice as the Lightning salted the game away.
Liberty will host No. 4 Carlisle (9-1) in a state quarterfinal next Friday.