All the ingredients for an epic comeback were there, except the chance to finish it.

That opportunity, tantalizingly close with time to spare, was ultimately lost to the only thing that could render Ellensburg’s ferocious second-half momentum moot.

Turnovers.

Snapping back from a 28-point deficit, the Bulldogs completely dominated the second half with three unanswered touchdowns and were a PAT conversion from creating a one-possession game with over six minutes left. But two of the day’s five turnovers finally stopped Ellensburg, allowing unbeaten Liberty to exit Zaepfel Stadium with a 35-26 state semifinal victory and a Tacoma Dome-sized sigh of relief.

“If we eliminate one of those turnovers it’s a different game,” lamented coach Randy Affholter. “We definitely wore them down in the second half, but the turnovers were the difference — which is something we always talk about. I’d love to have about six more minutes and a couple timeouts.”

Saving the day for Liberty was senior Isaiah Owens, who recovered a fumble when Ellensburg was driving again early in the fourth quarter and then intercepted two passes in the final four minutes when quarterback Bryce Helgeson, who accounted for all four EHS touchdowns, tried to push the pace downfield.

“Hats off to them,” said Liberty coach Steve Valach, whose team opened a 35-7 lead on the first play of the third quarter after a muffed kickoff. “Getting up 35-7 was huge. It would’ve been easy to just cave at that point and (Ellensburg) didn’t. I think that says a lot about them. Obviously at the end they’re trying to make things happen and you have to put the ball up. We were able to make some plays on those.”

Valach’s Patriots, who run a multiple-back fly-sweep offense, produced only three plays that gained more than 10 yards. And in the second half, Liberty gained only 51 total yards and didn’t get a first down until 90 seconds remained in the game.

But three plays — and the crucial timing of each — changed everything.

First came Cameron Spaeth’s 75-yard touchdown dash in the first quarter, which accounted for a big chunk of Liberty’s 210 yards on the ground — nearly 100 below its season average.

Then came Kahlil Manning’s 35-yard scoop and score early in the second period, pushing the Patriots ahead 21-0.

And the cruel blow was the muffed kickoff to start the second half, which led directly to Austin Regis’ 7-yard scoring sweep on the first play and a 35-7 lead.

“The fumble return, the short-field score — in game’s like this you just can’t do that,” Affholter said. “Those plays were the difference in the game.”

At 35-7, it didn’t seem like a game.

Until Ellensburg got rolling.

The Bulldogs rolled up 247 of their 350 yards after the break with running back Mason Sherwood pounding away for 119 yards on 30 carries and Helgeson adding 97 yards on the ground and 134 in the air. Helgeson scored from 8 yards out with 7:32 remaining and then, after a successful onside recovery, he scored again on a 12-yard scramper to carve the lead to 35-26.

Ellensburg, however, didn’t convert either PAT, leaving the gap at two possessions.

“We made good adjustments defensively at halftime and found our rhythm on offense,” Affholter said. “When we scored the second touchdown and got it to 35-14, we went into our two-minute offense and the kids really handled that well. We got ourselves back to where we needed to be, but we just buried ourselves too much.”

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Liberty (12-0) advances to the Class 2A championship game in the Tacoma Dome on Saturday and will face top-ranked Archbishop Murphy, which humbled Lynden 52-14 in the other semifinal.

Ellensburg, turned back in the semifinals for the third time in four years, finished its season at 11-2.

“We could’ve just went home with our tails between our legs, but they competed and fought back,” Affholter added. “For this group of kids, that’s what I’m very proud of. They wore them down and had a shot. We just couldn’t overcome those mistakes.”

 

Liberty 7 21 7 0 — 35

Ellensburg 0 7 7 12 — 26

Lib — Cameron Spaeth 75 run (Holden Kooiker kick)

Lib — Jacob Thoreson 5 run (Kooiker kick)

Lib — Kahlil Manning 35 fumble return (Kooiker kick)

Ell — Major Moffat 5 pass from Bryce Helgeson (Elliot Hougardy kick)

Lib — Austin Regis 1 run (Kooiker kick)

Lib — Regis 7 run (Kooiker kick)

Ell — Christian McDonnell 4 pass from Helgeson (Hougardy kick)

Ell — Helgeson 8 run (kick failed)

Ell — Helgeson 12 run (run failed)

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING — Lib, Spaeth 10-96, Regis 10-48, Reilly Larson 6-25, Thoreson 6-24, Dulin Hayden 5-12, Jake Wright 1-5. Ell, Mason Sherwood 30-119, Helgeson 15-97.

PASSING — Lib, Regis 4-5-0-60, Ell, Helgeson 11-20-2-134.

RECEIVING — Lib, Hayden 3-50, Isaiah Owens 1-10. Ell, Moffat 4-52, Nate Andaya 3-62, Xander Orejudos 2-15, McDonnell 1-4, Isaiah Scheffer 1-1.

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