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Big fourth quarter leads Westminster football past Liberty in season opener

WOODBINE — Liberty and Westminster spent most of the first half giving the ball to each other, and when Owls running back Erick Stranko collected his second turnover of the afternoon the senior came off the field and spent a few moments away from his teammates.

Stranko removed his helmet, crouched toward the turf and tried to compose himself. There was plenty of game remaining Friday at Western Regional Park, the season opener for both county foes. Stranko knew it.

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“At halftime we all came together and we said, no more mistakes. That’s the most important thing,” Stranko said. “Especially coming back from them. It’s how you respond from mistakes.”

Stranko and his fellow Owls responded in the second half and Westminster’s offense scored all of its points in the fourth quarter to pull away from Liberty and win 21-6.

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Westminster fell behind in the third quarter before Stranko scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, and its defense had a pair of interceptions along the way. Stranko dealt with two fumbles in the first half, but said halftime ― and a loud pep talk from coach Chris Bassler ― did his team good.

Westminster senior running back Erick Stranko picks up a first down as he is stopped by Liberty's Tommy Nelson during the second half of the Owls' 21-6 win over the Lions at Western Regional Park in Woodbine Friday, March 5, 2021.
Westminster senior running back Erick Stranko picks up a first down as he is stopped by Liberty's Tommy Nelson during the second half of the Owls' 21-6 win over the Lions at Western Regional Park in Woodbine Friday, March 5, 2021. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

“After that it was just good hard football. No turnovers,” the running back said. “And it ended up in our favor.”

Friday’s game featured two of the top backs in Carroll with Stranko (a county-best 1,295 rushing yards, 19 TDs in 2019) and Liberty junior Tommy Nelson (891 yards, 14 rushing TDs).

Both runners went over 100 yards unofficially. Nelson broke of a 70-plus-yard run in the third quarter to give Liberty a first-and-goal situation, but Westminster’s defense kept the Lions out of the end zone. The Owls punted on their possession, though, and Nelson got another chance.

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He scored from 3 yards out on to cap the ensuing drive and put the season’s first points on the board ― even though the scoreboard wasn’t in operation at Western Regional. Liberty went for a two-point conversion but failed to get in and led 6-0.

Bassler gathered all of his players on Westminster’s sideline.

“We preach mental toughness all the time, and I just told them … this is the perfect example,” said Bassler, whose team reached the Class 4A state quarterfinals in 2019. “We got punched in the teeth; give [Liberty] a lot of credit, they came out ready to play and took it to us for a little while. I told our guys, I said, ‘It’s gut check time.’”

The Owls played solid defense the rest of the way, and Max Doolan’s interception late in the fourth helped seal the win. Dimarco Brooks hauled in a pick earlier in the game to snuff out a Liberty drive.

Christian Heck added an 8-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to bolster Westminster’s ground game.

Liberty had its moments too. Nelson led the way on offense, and Cole Hudson snagged a long pass early on from quarterback Jack Pellicciotti. The sophomore also had a long pass play in the first quarter nullified because of a holding penalty, but connected a few times with his receivers.

Liberty running back Tommy Nelson is stopped by Westminster senior Erick Stranko on a two-point conversion attempt during the second half of the Owls' 21-6 win over the Lions at Western Regional Park in Woodbine Friday, March 5, 2021.
Liberty running back Tommy Nelson is stopped by Westminster senior Erick Stranko on a two-point conversion attempt during the second half of the Owls' 21-6 win over the Lions at Western Regional Park in Woodbine Friday, March 5, 2021. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Senior Jake Liska fueled the Lions’ defense up front, and coach Larry Luthe said there were positives on which to build for his young squad.

Luthe said he fielded eight seniors Friday, and has only five returning starters from the 2019 squad that played in the 2A state quarterfinals. Luthe found himself getting emotional when watching his upperclassmen preparing for the matchup.

“They didn’t get a prom [last year], they’re not going to get a prom this year,” Luthe said. “I’m just excited that they got an opportunity to get out here and play. … I’m not upset, I thought my kids gave a great effort. I thought we had a good game plan. It’s a great starting point for us.”

SCORING SUMMARY

L-Tommy Nelson 3 run (conversion failed)

W-Erick Stranko 8 run (Cam Doolan kick)

W-Christian Heck 8 run (Doolan kick)

W-Stranko 2 run (Doolan kick)

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