Football preview: Liberty - East Valley Tribune: VarsityXtra

Football preview: Liberty

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Posted: Friday, August 27, 2010 1:00 pm | Updated: 3:26 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

 Liberty quarterback Andre Gattie wrote two numbers in blue on his practice cleats when football practice began three weeks ago: 17-40.

It’s a reminder of how the Lions finished last season — a second round loss in the 4A-II state playoffs to Tucson Palo Verde — and a motivational tool during practice.

“I wrote that on my practice cleats this year so anytime I’m feeling down I just look down and that reminds me why I’m out here,” said the senior.

The loss resonated with the juniors who, for the first time, watched as teammates played in the final game of their careers. To watch players like running back Dan Mihelich and receiver/quarterback Keegan Whipkey end their high school playing days with a loss sent a message to the Liberty underclassmen.

“For this team, it was the first time they’ve seen someone play their last (high school) game,” said coach Dan Filleman. “Especially for the juniors it really hit them, they saw some (high school) careers end and they didn’t like that feeling.”

Filleman said he and his staff have tried to address the Lions’ lack of depth, which hurt them in the playoffs last season.

Liberty received some help when offensive lineman Travis Seefeldt transferred from Deer Valley High School. The senior is ranked 13th among Arizona offensive lineman by scout.com and adds something the Lions have lacked on the offensive line in the past — size.

“There’s always a learning curve when you come from a different program,” Filleman said about his 6 foot 2 inch, 280-pound lineman. “But (Seefeldt) has stepped in here, worked hard in practice and is becoming part of the football family. He also has shown our kids how to be more aggressive and go all out in practice. So just through his work ethic you can tell he’ll fit in.”

With his size and power, he’ll help a unit that opened enough holes to allow its running game to rush for 296 yards per game and held opponents’ defenses back long enough for the Lion quarterbacks to throw 14 touchdowns.

“We have a lot of new teammates who are filling a different spots, especially on the line (offensively),” said Gattie, who threw five touchdowns last season. “Our line looks real good, and without a good line any skill player will struggle.

Gattie then singled out his newest protector and didn’t hide his excitement playing the big guard.

“(Seefeldt) has been one of the most valuable players so far. He helps make this team better, and that will only help us down the road to win state.”

It’s Gattie who also will take up the leadership role on offense this season. He completed 59 percent of his passes and was second on the team in rushing with 809 yards as a junior.

But what caught Filleman’s eye the most was the time Gattie put in during the offseason to improve his skills.

“He’s worked hard during the offseason to make himself the best he can be,” Filleman said. “He’s also being pushed by a sophomore kid — Tyler Rogers. Competition at most positions only makes you better.”

While Gattie will likely earn the quarterback job, the Lions running game is still an open competition. With Mihelich gone, Filleman will pore through his options to find a revamped running game to fill a hole left by Mihelich’s graduation. Last season he took more than 40 percent of the handoffs and rushed for 1,855 yards.

“We have plenty of options and have been trying different guys in the role,” Filleman said. “We have a few packages in place and we just have to work through our options. We have a lot of talented kids who can fill the role. It’s a nice problem to have.”

Some of that talent will be split wide, including 6 foot 1 inch Geordan Key who led the Lions in receptions (20) and yards (337).

Key is one of a handful of what Filleman calls his “hybrid players” who play both ways for Liberty. With the talent he fields, Filleman said they fit well in his 3-5-3 defensive scheme.

“The 3-5-3 is the type (of defense) that works best for our kids,” Filleman said. “It works for us and the personnel we have on the field. It just fits us and we take pride in our speed. We’re a little like a fast-break defense.”

The Lions fast break defense, which held opponents to 14 points or less nine times, will have a new captain on the field — linebacker Austin Hasquet.

“It’s an honor for me to be a captain on this team,” Hasquet said. “I’ve wanted to be a leader on defense and help our team get some shutouts. I lead by example and let my play on the field speak for itself but I’m not afraid to get into a teammate’s ear to get the most out of them.”

While Liberty’s linebacking corps and secondary look solid, question marks surround the defensive line where Filleman will need to fill holes left by last year’s leaders Mason Simmons and Mitchell Kulos. Help will likely have to come from last year’s JV squad, but that doesn’t worry Hasquet.

“The team has put a lot of effort into the offseason,” Hasquet said. “Guys have worked hard in the weight room and the young guys have really stepped up their reps in practice.”

Those young guys, along with the well-regarded senior class, will have a chance to showcase their talents Oct. 21 against Cottonwood Mingus. Like the Lions, the Marauders finished the regular season perfect en route to a 4A-II Grand Canyon region title.

“We welcome the challenge,” Filleman said. “Coach Bob Young runs a top-notch program (at Mingus) with kids who execute. It’s great to play a first class team like Mingus and the fans can see the game on Cox 7.”

One thing that is for certain is Liberty won’t catch Division 4A-II by surprise this year. The Lions’ cover was blown by an appearance in the Independent division finals in 2008 and last season’s run into the second round.

“We will not be under the radar this year,” he said. “That’s a new spot for us after the past few years. Teams know more about who we are. It will be interesting to see how teams react to us and how our kids respond.”

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