For the first time since 2004 and possibly prior, the Hazen Highlanders football team has beaten the Liberty Patriots 20-13.
On Oct. 20, the Highlanders snapped a 10-game losing streak to Liberty, which was something that Head Coach Chris Bennett wasn’t totally aware of.
“Wow” he said. “That’s not good. Hopefully we start a little new tradition. They’re (Hazen) a resilient group, we don’t necessarily have the biggest strongest guys. But they’re a tight-knit group and what we lack in some areas we make up in togetherness.”
The Highlanders went to Liberty with an identical record as the Patriots at 1-3 in league play. But with the win, Hazen moves ahead of Liberty in the standings. These types of games, the border games as Coach Bennett called them, bring out the best in Hazen.
“It came down to focus and the kids bought in; played a gritty game against Newport and now we get this one. This one was big for us,” Bennett said.
Hazen’s ground-and-pound offensive mentality helped them control the pace of the game. On the back end of two lengthy drives, Sa’vae Kongaika punched in from two yards out.
“He’s just a physical specimen. He plays hard with a motor, tough as nails. If you need a yard to get, he can carry it or lead the way. He had a good night,” the Hazen coach said.
Kongaika was also the go-to running back in crunch time, on fourth down, and in short yardage situations.
“It was a hell of a game. Both sides played a hell of a game. It was a great atmosphere. We even got some love from the opposing team…It was probably the best game I played,” Kongaika said.
Hazen’s second drive of the game resulted in the first points of the game. Kongaika went in for the score with 2:41 left in the opening quarter.
“It felt like a dream,” Kongaika said.
He never thought he’d spend as much time in the backfield as he has in his career. Coming in as a freshman, he thought his career would just be as a defensive player.
“Coach told me to give offense a try and I loved it,” Kongaika said.
In the second quarter, Liberty got on the board, and the bright spot was Kellan Kobata. He kicked two field goals for the Patriots after Hazen’s defense thwarted the Liberty offense inside the red zone on two possessions.
“Our goal going in was if we could hold them to 21, we would have a pretty good chance… For the most part of the game, we were really dialed in and the kids executed the plan,” Bennett said.
The scoreboard didn’t show a lot of offense, but it did show how close these two sides were with the score 7-6 at the end of the first half.
On the Highlanders’ opening drive of the second half, they took the ball the length of the field. A steady diet of runs from Isaac Rose and Devaughn Daniels put the Highlanders inside the five-yard line. Then for the second time, Kongaika hammered his way in for the touchdown.
“We came out here as a brotherhood. We kept reminding each other throughout the game who we are fighting for. It’s deep. We knew it would come out good at the end,” Kongaika said.
Going into the fourth quarter, the Highlanders led by seven and their defense stayed strong. Evan Kwan intercepted the Liberty quarterback, giving Hazen some added momentum. The Highlanders took that, and two plays later, Isaac Rose broke off a 43-yard run with 7:51 left in the game.
But Liberty would try and mount a comeback, and with 3:28, Jaxson Thoreson ran in from nine yards away. That would be all the Patriots could mount on the comeback front as the Hazen defense stopped them on their next possession.
The Highlanders take on one of the best teams in the state in their final regular season matchup: Bellevue, which hasn’t lost a league game since 2007.
“We’ll prepare like we always do. We’ll put a plan together and then see what we can come out and do next week. It’s a tall task, but you got to play all of them,” Bennett said.