By:  J. Daniel Pearson

It was a long time in coming, but Liberty got their first win in 22 months as the Chargers build a 20-8 lead and then held on for a 20-17 win over Celebration on Thursday night.

“Absolutely feels great and it’s something these kids needed and deserved,” Liberty Coach Dee Hart said.  “Despite losing four lop-sided games to start the season, this team never gave up in any of those games and continued to work their tails off to get better.  The next step was to learn what it feels like to win a game and tonight we got that feeling.  I am just so proud of these guys right now.”

It was also Hart’s first head coaching win, after he served as an assistant coach at Frostproof (Polk County) last season before the former college and NFL player accepted his first head coaching job at Liberty last spring.  

The win could be attributed to senior quarterback Jeremiah Pierre-Louis and a Chargers defense that allowed just one score on the night.

After the teams battled to a stalemate for most of the first quarter, Pierre-Louis gave Liberty a 6-0 lead when he fired a 52-yard touchdown pass to Joshua Alezi, who had slipped behind the Celebration secondary.

Christian Tai would intercept Celebration quarterback Landen Yaw and return it 23 yards to the Storm three to set up a touchdown run by Pierre-Louis as the Chargers took a 12-0 lead into the locker room in the first half.

Meanwhile, the Charger defense was holding Celebration to just 44 net yards on five first-half possessions.   “Give their defense some credit, especially in the first half,” Storm coach Jeremy Palmer said.  “They were aggressive and did a great job of stepping up and plugging the running lanes in the first half.”

Celebration would rally in the second half.  

On the Storm’s first possession of the second half, Anthony Parris would break off two-long runs and Kobe Orr would score on a six-yard touchdown run.  Orr would tack on the two-point conversion to cut the lead to 12-8.

But Liberty would answer two possessions later as Pierre-Louis would score on a 15-yard run and add the two-point conversion to make it 20-8.  The key play on the 12-play, 60-yard drive came when Liberty was facing a third and 33 from their own 32.  Pierre-Louis would rip on a 14-yard run and was hit out of bounds on the play for a 15 more yards.  He converted a first down on the next play and would score six plays later to make 20-8 with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

Still, Celebration had some fight left.  

Pinning Liberty deep in its own territory the Charger punter had to go down on his knee to handle a bad snap.  The play resulted in a safety to cut the lead to 20-10.  Later in the quarter, the Strom again pinned the Chargers deep and this time they blocked a punt and Zane Zelmanski picked up the ball and scored from two yards out to make it 20-17.

But the ensuing on-sides kick went out of bounds and Pierre-Louis took two knees to end the game.  “We played okay, especially in the second half,” Storm coach Jeremy Palmer said.  “But young players are going to make mistakes, and we put the ball on ground too many times and had too many penalties to overcome the deficit.”

For the game, Pierre-Louis completed just five of 17 passes and threw three interceptions, but he passed for 112 yards and rushed for 90 in accounting for three touchdowns.  “I felt he was the best player on the field tonight,” Hart said about his senior quarterback.  “After last year’s disastrous season, he could have transferred anywhere and played on a better team.  Instead he stayed loyal to Liberty, became a four-year starter and is now providing incredible leadership to our young team.  I am so proud of him.”

Liberty (1-4) can make it two in a row when they host Gateway (0-3) next week.  Celebration (1-4) will travel to undefeated Tohopekaliga, a team they upset 21-20 a year ago.