Already guaranteed the best finish in the four-year history of the Salina Liberty, head coach Heron O’Neal wants to take it one step further. That would mean bringing Salina home its first-ever Champions Indoor Football title.
The 2019 season will come to a close when the Liberty meet the Duke City Gladiators in Champions Bowl V, scheduled for a 7 p.m. start Saturday at Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque, N.M. Duke City is the defending CIF champion, while the Liberty make their first appearance in a Champions Bowl.
“I’m very excited, not only for myself but for the team and the coaches and, most importantly, for the city of Salina,” O’Neal said. “This is the culmination of the city getting behind this team, supporting us and understanding what we’re trying to do in this community.”
O’Neal led Salina to a 10-4 record and an appearance in the Northern Division title game in his first full season with the team in 2018, but that team came up a yard short in a 45-39 loss to the Sioux City Bandits. With numerous changes in the roster during the offseason, Salina has put together another strong season and stands at 9-4 entering the season finale.
That included a 44-42 victory over the Omaha Beef in the Northern Division title game two weeks ago, when Omaha couldn’t convert on a two-point conversion attempt with no time left on the clock.
“Last year we came up one yard short and this year we won by two yards,” O’Neal said. “We did it with pretty much a totally different team.
“We have seven guys that played last year for us that are now playing for other teams around the league. We have a new quarterback, new running back, new secondary and linebackers. It’s satisfying to go out and bring in the talent necessary to win again.”
The changes in the lineup may have contributed to a relatively slow start for the Liberty this season. They lost two of their first three games in March and early April, this after losing three games total in the 2018 regular season.
At the end of May Salina was 5-3, two games out of first place in its division and still in a fight to earn one of the two playoff spots in the North.
“I’ve said all along that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” O’Neal said. “The thing about how we train and how we go through our day-to-day business, we’re built for this. These guys are in shape and ready to do what they have to do.
“They understand the task at hand is to come home as national champions. Opportunities like this don’t come around too many times in a lifetime.”
Running back Tracy Brooks agreed.
“We started off kind of slow,” he said. “We had to get everybody on the same page. Everybody had to buy into what Coach O wanted and was doing.
“When that happened, you could tell this was a different team.”
It will be the third meeting this season between Salina and Duke City, with both teams winning at home. The Liberty defeated the Gladiators 29-22 back on May 4 at Tony’s Pizza Events Center. Salina closed the regular season with a 43-26 loss at Duke City, in a game that determined home field advantage for the championship game.
Last week’s win over Omaha gave the Liberty a 6-1 record at home this season, but Salina is only 3-3 in road games.
Having played in Albuquerque only three weeks ago, O’Neal believes his team knows what to expect in the title game and what it will take to be successful.
“The thing about it is, with six or seven minutes left they were only up three points,” O’Neal said of the last meeting. “The thing we learned that night is we can’t turn it over four times and drop seven passes. You do that against the No. 1 defense and offense in the league, you aren’t going to win too many games.
“We had great effort but the execution was putrid. To do what we did and still be in the game in the fourth quarter shows how good this team really is. Now we are used to that environment and understand what will take place. We know what we have to do to bring a national championship back to Salina.”
It all starts up front, according to Brooks.
“Controlling the line of scrimmage will be the main thing,” he said. “As long as we control the line of scrimmage up front, we’ve got a quarterback who is going to make plays and on defense we have a secondary that is going to make plays.
“We have to get pressure on their quarterback and keep pressure off of our quarterback.”
First-year Liberty quarterback Andrew Jackson is second in the CIF this season in completions (215), passing yards (2,556) and passing touchdowns (52). Brooks is the CIF leader in rushing yards (754) and rushing touchdowns (24).
Salina receiver Rashad Pargo is second in the league in receiving touchdowns (21) and fourth in receiving yards (714), while Ed Smith has 30 catches for 444 yards this season.
Duke City leads the CIF in scoring, averaging 66.1 points a game, but also has the No. 1 defense, allowing only 36.6 points a game. Gladiators quarterback Robert Kent completed 14 of 19 passes in his team’s 70-62 victory over Amarillo in the Southern Division championship game, and seven of those 14 completions went for touchdowns.
This is the second championship game appearance for a Salina indoor football team. The Salina Bombers fell to the Wichita Wild in the Champions Professional Indoor Football League title game in 2013.