All season long, Mountain View-Birch Tree Liberty was the “hunted”. Other state-ranked teams within their district like Strafford and Mountain Grove wanted the opportunity to knock-off the Eagles in revenge for previous play-off or regular season losses. But now, after winning the district title with a 34-31 win over Mountain Grove, the Eagles go from the “hunted” to the “hunter” as they take on two-time defending champion Lamar in the state quarterfinals on Saturday.
The Class 2, District 3 final at Mountain View featured two of the top-four ranked teams in the state. The unbeaten Eagles were ranked number one while Mountain Grove was ranked fourth after upsetting third-ranked Strafford in the district semifinals.
Liberty came in averaging 57 points-per-game, Mtn. Grove averaging 45 points-per-contest. So everyone was expecting an offensive show and they got it quickly when Liberty quarterback Jaelon Acklin uncorked a 61 yard pass to Keith Howell on the Eagles second offensive play from scrimmage for a 6-0 MV-BT/Liberty lead after the extra point was blocked.
And let the barrage of scoring begin.
Mtn. Grove took a 7-6 lead at 7:46 of the first quarter after driving 59 yards in 5-plays with running back Ricky Healy going the final 24-yards.
MV-BT/Liberty took 7 plays to cover 53 yards with Jaelon Acklin’s 18 yard keeper putting the Eagles ahead 14-7 with the two-point conversion at 6:25 of the first quarter.
Mtn. Grove immediately moved 63 yards in 11 plays with Healy’s 15 yard run pulling the Panthers within 14-13 after a missed extra point.
Early in the second quarter Liberty increased its lead to 21-13 after Jaelon Acklin connected with his brother Jansen Acklin on a 27 yard TD pass to cap an 8 play, 57 yard surge.
Healy’s third touchdown of the night from seven yards out came at 4:57 of the second quarter after Mtn. Grove moved 55 yards in 9 plays pulled the Panthers within 21-19 as they missed a two-point conversion.
But just 15 seconds later, Jaelon Acklin would break loose 50 yards to give MV/BT-Liberty a 28-19 advantage at the half.
“We weren’t really stopping their offense so we kinda had to score every time we had the ball,” Jaelon said in describing the intensity probably felt by both teams.
Mtn. Grove slowed down the temp in the 3rd quarter. The Panthers keep the ball for over nine-and-a-half minutes and put together seven first downs, pulling within 28-25 on Healy’s two-yard TD run, his fourth score of the night.
“I was really scared at that point because I thought we’d never get the ball back,” Liberty head coach Darin Acklin said. “Our offense is explosive but we have to have the ball to be explosive. They kept the ball out of our hands and we knew that was their game plan.”
By midway in the 4th quarter Mtn. Grove’s plan had brought them back into the lead as an 11 play, 72-yard drive put them ahead 31-28 as Healy scored on a one-yard run, his fifth TD of the game,
But it took MV-BT/Liberty just 15 seconds to retake the lead as the Acklin brothers traded places. Jansen, normally the receiver, lined-up at quarterback and connected with Jaelon, normally the quarterback, for a 49 yard reception down to the Mtn. Grove one-yard-line. And on the next play Bryan Porter went over for the final 34-31 margin.
There was still 6:15 left on the clock when Liberty scored the go-ahead touchdown, and Mtn. Grove had one more scoring opportunity. But with 1:10 remaining, Jaelon Acklin would intercept the Panthers 4th down pass at the Liberty 25 yard-line, and the Eagles had held-off Mtn. Grove’s final surge.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be on that guy,” Jaelon recalled when talking about the interception. “I was lined-up on the other side but when I saw the quarterback going out the other way I kind of broke on it, saw the ball in the air, and made the play.”
And after holding off that challenge, Liberty now gets the opportunity for revenge against the team that’s kept them from winning the state title in two-time defending state champion Lamar. No longer the “hunted” but the “hunter”.
“Being the hunted is a lot harder because you have everything to lose,” Jaelon Acklin said. “You have a lot of weight on your shoulders. But this coming week we’re going to be the hunters so we don’t have anything to lose. Everyone’s expecting them to win so hopefully, we can come out and make a game out of it.”
“Being hunted is not fun,” added his father, head coach Darin Acklin. “It used to be that we had to bring our ‘A’ game just to be competitive. Now everybody’s bringing their ‘A’ game to us. It’s very different.”
Lamar has scored 84 and 72 points in its last two playoff games. So what will it take for Liberty to beat them?
“The Missouri St. squad dressing out for us,” Darin said jokingly. “But obviously we’ve got to find a way to stop them from scoring that many points. And we’re going to have to score more than 34 points.”