Kent Nevin said he’s never had a Fife High School football team facing this much adversity and injuries.
It was already tough enough going against fifth-ranked and reigning state runner-up Liberty of Issaquah fully healthy, but it was without five starters entering the game.
And quarterback Falani Jennings spent the rest of the game leaning on crutches when he left after the first series with an ankle injury.
Then University of Washington-bound lineman MJ Ale went down the series after that, being carted off the field with a knee injury. He, too, spend the rest of the game on crutches on the sideline.
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“By far and away – I’ve never faced this many injuries in such a big game,” Nevin said. “And we’re not making excuses. We have a next-man up mentality. But we were talking about it as coaches – we’ve enver been this banged up at the end of the year.”
All that, and the ninth-ranked Trojans were still in this game.
But a late drive ended in an interception near the goal line as Liberty ended Fife’s season, 24-14, in the first round of the 2A state playoffs on Friday at Sunset Chev Stadium in Sumner.
The 6-foot-6, 330-pound Ale was carted off the field on Fife’s second defensive series of the game after a Liberty player chopped blocked him. He was carted back to the sideline later, but without his football pads and an air cast wrapped around his right leg.
“It was definitely hard not being on the field,” Ale said. “But I couldn’t drop my energy for my teammates. The boys definitely gave it everything. They stepped up to the plate and I couldn’t ask for a better bunch of guys to play with.”
That negated what was expected to be a matchup of two of the state’s best linemen. Liberty had reining TNT all-state defensive lineman Julian Manning-Bruce, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound senior who is the younger brother of former Washington State University and all-Pac-10 lineman Mkristo Bruce, who went on to sign as an undrafted free agent with the Miami Dolphins.
Liberty coach Steve Valach was a running back at Pacific Lutheran University before coaching Mkristo at Liberty. But he said Julian is the most dominant player he’s ever coached.
“Our defense was outstanding tonight,” Valach said. “We had momentum – big mo was on our side – but we didn’t really capitalize like we could have.”
Liberty missed two field goals and this game was tied 7-7 in the second quarter when Fife’s Lavelle Alexander returned a fumble 69 yards for a touchdown.
Liberty’s Holden Kooiker connected on a 30-yard field goal later in the second quarter and Fife had a chance with 3:16 left to maybe tie or take the lead or at least run out the clock and regroup at halftime after all those injuries – with the Trojans set to receive the second-half kickoff.
But Xavier Preston, who missed last week’s district-playoff win over Sequim because he got in a car crash, Nevin said, but was cleared to play on Thursday for this game, ran nine yards up the right sideline before fumbling the ball. Liberty recovered and three plays later sophomore quarterback Sam Brown hit Jacob Thoreson for a 38-yard touchdown.
That made it 17-7 at halftime.
“That was the turning point for us,” Nevin said.
Liberty went up 24-7 on Thoreson’s third touchdown of the game.in the third quarter. He finished with 137 all-purpose yards.
But Preston answered back with a five-yard touchdown run with 8:54 to play to make things interesting. Fife’s short-handed defense without Ale, Jennings (who doubled as safety) and 2A SPSL defensive lineman of the year Soli Paleso’o, forced a punt.
Lavelle Alexander busted a 43-yard run up the left sideline. He finished with 11 carries for 109 yards to push his season total to 1,041 yards.
But facing fourth-and-3 at the Liberty 9-yard-line, Gannon Ginnis’ pass was intercepted by Liberty’s Briar Cameron with 2:03 to play.
“They fought and we had a lot of guys who haven’t played much, but they battled and I’m proud of my kids for that,” Nevin said. “We have a great senior class who worked their tails off and were committed and set the example for the young guys and that’s what I love.”
It was Fife’s second trip to state in the past 10 years.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
NO. 5 LIBERTY OF ISSAQUAH
NO. 9 FIFE
L – Jacob Thoreson 53 pass from Samuel Brown (Holden Kooiker kick)
F – Lavelle Alexander 69 fumble return (Gabe Duenas kick)
L – Kooiker 30 field goal
L – Thoreson 38 pass from Brown (Kooiker kick)
L – Thoreson 6 run (Kooiker kick)
F – Xavier Preston 5 run (Duenas kick)
RUSHING – Liberty: Jake Wright 16-106; Sam Coulon 4-52; Reilly Larson 6-45; Jacob Thoreson 6-36; Sam Brown 4-36. Fife: Lavelle Alexander 11-109; Gannon Ginnis 6-37; Xavier Preston 7-22; Day’Jon Brooks 5-19; Eli Graham 1-5.
PASSING – Liberty: Sam Brown 3-8-0-99. Fife: Gannon Ginnis 7-13-1-65.
RECEIVING – Liberty: Jacob Thoreson 3-99. Fife: Xavier Preston 4-51; Eli Graham 2-12; Lavelle Alexander 1-2.