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South Carroll football survives test against Liberty to stay unbeaten

South Carroll can exhale.

A furious Liberty rally had the Cavaliers down by a point with under a minute to go. But, on a third-and-long while running for his life in the backfield, South Carroll quarterback Ryan Barnard made a season-defining throw.

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The senior fired the ball back over the middle of the field to find junior Jackson Strzelczyk for the game-deciding score in a Cavaliers’ 28-23 victory over the Lions on Senior Night.

“I saw his guy come off him and towards me,” Barnard said of the decisive play. “I put it right in his bread-basket and he did the rest.”

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Following the score, the South Carroll (4-0, 7-0) defense made a last-second stand as Liberty (2-2, 2-5) drove deep into Cavaliers’ territory. On fourth down, South Carroll defensive back Carter Mazelewski broke up a pass in the endzone as time expired to preserve the win.

“It’s a wake-up call for us,” Barnard said. “It’s not like we took them lightly or anything. We just made some mistakes. We are going to fix them. We played pretty decent today, but it could have been better.”

The mistakes almost proved to be too much to overcome for the Cavaliers. After jumping out to a 15-point halftime lead, South Carroll was shut down for much of the second half and allowed Liberty to creep back in the game.

The Lions took advantage of a roughing the kicker penalty to pull within 22-15 at the end of three quarters. After the penalty gave the Lions a first down, Liberty quarterback Jack Pellicciotti hit Drew Mooney on a busted coverage for a 61-yard score with under a minute to go in the third.

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“We made plays — they just made one more play than we did,” Liberty head coach Larry Luthe said. “We had the lead with a 1:30 left, and we just couldn’t close out. We had a chance. That’s all you can ask for. I couldn’t be more proud of my kids, they played their butts off. It was a great game.”

South Carroll had a chance to close out the game, but couldn’t as its offense stalled on a pair of drives in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers punted the ball back to Liberty with just under four minutes to go and that is when the drama really ramped up.

It looked like the Cavaliers were going to get the stop they needed with just under two minutes to go but a pass interference penalty extended the Liberty drive. Then, as the clock wound under 1:40 to go, Liberty junior running back Tommy Nelson silenced the crowd with a second explosive play of the night.

Nelson took the handoff, shifted around two South Carroll tacklers and bolted 61 yards for a touchdown that cut the Cavaliers’ lead to 22-21. Pellicciotti then found Mooney again for the two-point conversion that put the Lions in front, 23-22, with under 1:30 to go.

“He is one of the best backs in the county,” Luthe said of Nelson. “He runs the ball hard and can catch the ball out of the backfield.”

In the first half, the game looked as though it would get away from Liberty. The Lions didn’t have any answers for South Carroll’s explosive playmaker AJ Rodrigues.

Rodrigues returned the opening kickoff into Liberty territory, as the Cavaliers started their first drive at the Liberty 45-yard line. Barnard had a pair of runs and a pass to Gage Duncan as South Carroll moved inside the 5. On third down, Rodrigues capped off the short drive with a 1-yard run, as the Cavaliers took an early 7-0 advantage.

“AJ [Rodrigues] is one of those all-around players,” South Carroll head coach Mike Kraus said. “He definitely makes our special teams special. He’s capable of finding some lanes [to run]. Really proud of what our special teams did tonight.”

After a quick punt by the Liberty offense, South Carroll’s offense struck again. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Barnard hit junior Nate Boore along the sideline for a 37-yard score and the Cavaliers stretched out to a 14-0 lead.

The Lions started to climb back in the game as they opened the second quarter with a big play of their own. With 12 minutes to go in the second quarter, Nelson had a 75-yard run to cut the Lions’ deficit in half at 14-7.

“We knew going in [Liberty] was a well-coached team and a [good] offensive team,” Kraus said. “We had to have our defense ready to play for 48 minutes. Everybody played together. This team has character and with that character, I will take them all the way for 48 minutes.”

Rodrigues took back control for the Cavaliers on the next drive. He opened the drive with a kickoff return out to midfield. After Barnard got the ball to the Liberty side of the field with a run, Rodrigues broke free for a 45-yard touchdown catch to cap the first half scoring at 22-7.

For South Carroll, this tight contest was a good test of its mettle as the postseason nears. The Cavaliers are closing in on the county title with a game against Century next week, followed by a game against Francis Scott Key to close the regular season.

“Getting another victory keeps us undefeated and helps us get a better seed in the playoffs,” Strzelczyk said. “It helps a lot.”

South Carroll 28, Liberty 23

SC – AJ Rodrigues 1-yard run (Ryan Barnard kick good)

SC – Nate Boore 37-yard pass from Barnard (Barnard kick good)

L – Tommy Nelson 75-yard run (Austin Cirri kick good)

SC – Rodrigues 45-yard run (Barnard to Jackson Moore 2-point conversion)

L – Drew Mooney 61-yard pass from Pellicciotti (Pellicciotti to Chase Tucker for 2-point conversion)

L – Nelson 60-yard run (Pelliciotti pass to Mooney for 2-points)

SC – Jackson Strzelczyk 61-yard pass from Barnard (Conversion no good)

South Carroll quarterback Ryan Barnard (11) is forced out of bounds by Liberty's Luke Collins during a football game at South Carroll High School on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.
South Carroll quarterback Ryan Barnard (11) is forced out of bounds by Liberty's Luke Collins during a football game at South Carroll High School on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. (Brian Krista/Carroll County Times)
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