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In defensive battle, Westminster football holds off Liberty

As Westminster showcased Friday, a strong defense and a powerful running attack can carry teams a long way.

The Owls’ defense held off Liberty with a last-minute stand and junior running back Michael Simons rushed for over 150 yards, as Westminster held on for a 13-7 road victory over the Lions.

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“We’ve played in a lot of close games,” Westminster head coach Chris Bassler said. “We’re learning how to win those games. Here the last couple of weeks, we’ve been the team that has been able to make that one more play. If we keep that up, there’s no telling where we can stop.”

The Owls seemed to have the game in hand as the clock wound under two minutes to go in the fourth quarter. The Westminster defense had held the potent Lions’ attack scoreless and looked to be on the verge of a shut out.

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Lions quarterback Jack Pellicciotti had other ideas, however, as he found wideout Sam Evans for a 37-yard score that brought Liberty within six points with 1:40 to go.

The Lions then recovered the ensuing onside kick and picked up a pair of first downs as the drama ratcheted up. Westminster senior defensive lineman Frank Webb III saved the Owls on fourth down, though, by busting through for a sack to close out the game.

“It wasn’t just me, it was my team,” Webb said of the Owls’ defensive effort “Working day in and day out at practice. Couldn’t have done it without them.”

After a scoreless first half, Westminster took to the ground to break the ice. Owls’ running back Michael Simons had seven carries to help Westminster methodically moved the ball downfield to notch the first score.

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Westminster was aided by a pass interference penalty that kept the drive alive after a third down incompletion. After a fourth down conversion by senior quarterback Jack Gruenzinger to sophomore Kyrece Walker put the ball inside the red zone, Simons capped the drive with a 14-yard score.

“Our line’s been executing so well,” Simons said. “Our receivers are blocking. It’s all for one. We are all a unit.”

With eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Westminster looked to put the game away. The Owls’ defense pinned the Lions deep in their own end, forcing a punt from inside the 5. That gave the Westminster offense great starting field position as they got the ball at midfield.

Simons moved the ball deep into the Liberty zone with carries of 15 and 12 yards. Junior running back Matthew Heath put the ball inside the 5 with a 10-yard run as the clock wound under five minutes to go. The Owls struggled to punch it in, but on fourth down Heath found a hole in the Liberty defense and scored to give the Owls a 13-0 lead.

Pellicciotti’s touchdown toss gave Liberty late life, but the deficit proved to be too much to overcome. The Lions couldn’t muster enough offense against a strong Owls’ defensive line.

“They are very good defensively,” Liberty head coach Larry Luthe said. “Their kids came and played with great effort for four quarters. They came after us and we never really could get going. I loved the fact that our kids played hard.”

The Owls’ defensive line dominated for much of the game, limiting the county’s leading rusher Tommy Nelson to under 60 yards on the ground.

“It was a collective [effort],” Bassler said. “All 11 guys executed the plan extremely well. We were flying around up front. Our D-line was really the difference in the game.”

After a second straight close loss to a top team in the county, Luthe said he hopes his team is working out some of the “bad mojo” and might be able to make a few more plays once the season resets when the playoffs start.

“It seems to be our theme this year is play close games,” he said. “It all resets in two weeks and the playoffs start. Maybe, we can get our mojo, maybe we are getting out all the bad [luck] and we will get our mojo together in two weeks.”

Westminster 13, Liberty 6

W – Michael Simons 14-yard run (Owen Harris kick no good)

W – Matthew Heath 1-yard run (Harris kick good)

L – Jack Pellicciotti 37-yard pass to Sam Evans (Austin Cirri kick good)

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