RENTON — Time ran out on River Ridge High School’s stellar season on Saturday night at Liberty High School.
Struggling to climb back from a two-score deficit for most of the fourth quarter, the Hawks got the ball back deep in their own territory with 44.5 seconds to play, trailing by a touchdown.
But, Kelle Sanders’ pass on first down fell incomplete, and a broken play sent Sanders scrambling, barely out of the end zone on second down.
Then, on third down, River Ridge couldn’t snap the ball in time, handing Liberty a 21-14 win, and a trip to the Class 2A state semifinals.
“I came up here and watched the last couple weeks, and we told our guys, this is a tough place to play, and you’re down 14 coming in,” River Ridge coach Steve Schultz said. “That’s what it felt like.”
And, indeed, that is what happened.
The seventh-ranked Hawks never led after Jake Wright corralled a 7-yard pass from Austin Regis and stepped untouched into the end zone on the Patriots’ opening possession.
River Ridge evened the score on the following drive when Trey Dorfner broke loose for a 42-yard TD run to make it 7-7.
But that was about as much offense as the Hawks, who were averaging 43.1 points per game entering Saturday, could put together until late in the fourth quarter.
Each of their next three first-half drives ended in punts, and Jacob Thoreson added a 3-yard TD run to give Liberty a 14-7 advantage at halftime.
“A couple of stops we needed, we didn’t get,” said River Ridge linebacker Zach Carter, a four-year starter. “Offensively, we just couldn’t get it rolling. We had a couple of nice plays, but just couldn’t get it rolling.”
The frustration continued in the second half. Two consecutive punts gave Liberty the ball at River Ridge’s 42 near the end of the third quarter.
The Patriots appeared headed for a three-and-out, but attempted a fake punt, and a questionable ball placement resulted in a pivotal first down.
Liberty scored six plays later, on Cameron Spaeth’s 8-yard run, straight through the middle of River Ridge’s defense, to make it 21-7 with eight minutes, 30 seconds left to play.
“They battled,” Schultz said. “We didn’t focus on that. If you start getting into that, things start falling apart.”
River Ridge did cut the lead to one score late in the fourth, when Kelle Sanders found Dorfner for a 21-yard TD pass, but the Hawks didn’t get closer.
They forced a punt on Liberty’s ensuing drive, but the limited time they had to work with wasn’t enough.
River Ridge finished with 190 total yards (89 rushing, 101 passing), and picked up only eight first downs on 41 offensive plays.
“The ball just didn’t roll our way,” Carter said. “That’s not the way we wanted it to end, but I’m proud.”
The Hawks cycled through grief in the locker room, Schultz said — denial, anger, pain, sorrow.
“Everybody can point fingers,” he said. “Everybody can say ‘Coulda, shoulda, woulda.’ I said, ‘If you guys do that, you’re going to destroy the love that we have.’
“That just kind of opened it up and they let it all go.”
“Everybody had something to say,” Carter said. “We were going around and sharing. Coach Schultz is proud of us, we’re all proud. We love each other, it’s a brotherhood out there.”
Carter noted how the group of seniors led the team this season, and the family atmosphere the Hawks created.
“Our program is more than wins and losses,” Schultz said. “We’ve had a lot of wins. We’ve had a lot of success. But, to see guys talk about planning to be successful in life, and being good fathers, and being good husbands — that’s what it’s really about.”
The Hawks (9-2) advanced to the state quarterfinals this season for the first time since 1998, after losing in the first round the past two years.
“There’s nothing that can be said besides it’s a great season, and we went further than we did last year, which was our goal,” Carter said.
NO. 7 RIVER RIDGE
L – Jake Wright 7 pass from Austin Regis (Holden Kooiker kick)
RR – Trey Dorfner 42 run (Matt O’Leary kick)
L – Jacob Thoreson 3 run (Kooiker kick)
L – Cameron Spaeth 8 run (Kooiker kick)
RR – Dorfner 21 pass from Kelle Sanders (O’Leary kick)