Defending champion Liberty to face Topeka in CIF opener

by Marjorie Anderson

Courtesy of the Salina Journal
Written by Arne Green

A year ago at this time, the Salina Liberty began the 2022 Champions Indoor Football season with a singular mission.

Two straight Champions Bowl losses still stuck in their craw, and they were bound and determined to ensure that the third time was a charm.

Mission accomplished.

With a 38-34 come-from-behind victory in front of the home fans at Tony's Pizza Events Center against the Omaha Beef — the same team that denied them the year before on the same field — the Liberty finally had their championship trophy.

But with the trophy also came a giant target, something veteran coach Heron O'Neal already has addressed with the Liberty players ahead of their 6:35 p.m. Saturday season opener against the Topeka Tropics at TPEC.

"I brought that very point up at the end of (Thursday's) practice," O'Neal said. "We went from the hunter to the hunted.

"But it's the same fundamentals that we need (to repeat)."

O'Neal, who two years ago was inducted into the Indoor Football League Hall of Fame, is on a similar path in CIF after leading the Liberty to three straight Champions Bowls. But he didn't get there by taking anything for granted.

"I would definitely say we're a work in progress," said O'Neal, whose 25-man roster includes 11 players who at one point or another played for the 2022 championship team. "We've only been practicing for a week for two, so it's kind of hard to tell who we'll be.

"We have moving pieces at a lot of different positions that we just brought in, so the first game will be an eye-opener for our staff."

On the positive side, the Liberty bring back a handful of veteran backs and receivers, plus two offensive linemen. But they're also breaking in a new quarterback, or more precisely two.

On defense, ends Travis Taylor and Shaq Bradford both return, along with ageless safety Dontra Matthews, but much of the secondary will be brand new, as will the linebacker.

"We have more question marks on defense," O'Neal said. "You don't have a defense like we had last year come around very often. These guys all have to prove themselves, even the ones who are back.

"Just because we were successful last year doesn't mean we will be again, so they have to all buy in and play as a unit, play as a group."

On offense, leading receivers Ed Smith, Demarius Washington and Anthony Love all are back, as are running backs Tracy Brooks and Tristan Gould. Brooks was the league's most valuable player in 2021, but was plagued by injuries last year.

Lineman Kelvin McCoy and Aleki Tapa also return, which should buy some time for the new quarterback.

At quarterback, O'Neal brought in Jared Evans from Virginia Tech, who also got looks as an undrafted free agent from the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. Also battling for the job is Javonte Johnson, who is coming off a championship in American West Coast Football, where he was voted most valuable player.

O'Neal also is high on new running back De'Andra Sipp.

"I'm loving our veterans, but we're bringing in a lot of young guys," O'Neal said. "You never know what rookies will do.

"But this is my 18th year (as an indoor coach). My goal is always to win every football game I coach, I want the No. 1 home seed throughout the playoffs and to win a championship. That never changes."

The CIF, which has seen a lot of turnover in recent years, returns all eight teams — the Liberty, Beef, Tropics, Sioux City Bandits, Billings Outlaws, Southwest Kansas (Dodge City) Storm, Wyoming Mustangs and Rapid City Marshals — from 2022.

The Liberty opens against the Topeka Tropics, who were winless last year as an expansion franchise, then play consecutive road games at Sioux City, Topeka and Rapid City before returning to Tony's Events Center on April 8 to face Billings.