By Trey Williams
Liberty Bell’s eighth-grade football team drilled opponents all season while revealing rich depth in Science Hill’s pipeline.
The Patriots won nine straight games by double-digit margins en route to an undefeated season, which was capped with their second victory against Greeneville in the Middle Eight Conference championship last week at Kermit Tipton Stadium.
“The success they’ve had has been unbelievable,” Science Hill sixth-year coach Stacy Carter said. “And they’ve done a good job coaching them. … That’s an exceptional bunch that’s beaten good teams and beaten them pretty handily, too.
“They look like they have some players that are going to be fantastic – a good group of linemen and skill players. For one class, that’s as much talent as I’ve ever seen.”
Running back Malik Bowman was the most impressive reason the Patriots outscored opponents, 370-64. He rushed for approximately 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight games, and he had three TDs negated by penalties in the final three games.
One of those penalties was against the opponent, but Liberty Bell couldn’t decline the facemask because the play was whistled dead when Bowman’s helmet was ripped off his head. Unfazed, Bowman continued into the end zone.
His swift, upright running style is aesthetically pleasing, but Bowman has the footwork and rugged nature of a former boxer who won a district Silver Gloves title. He shrugs off would-be tacklers and requires gang-tackling.
“I’ve told him during the year several times, ‘Would you please just get on the ground? I don’t want you standing up and taking all that punishment,’” said Liberty Bell coach Bill Murr, who played linebacker at East Tennessee State (1982-85) for Jack Carlisle, Buddy Sasser and Mike Ayers. “He’ll just stand there and sling one off and somebody’ll have him around his feet and he couldn’t move and another one will come, and I’m like, ‘Get down.’ But from standing there in boxing, he’s tough.”
Linemen Matthew Levi and linebacker/receiver Nick Copenhaver also exemplified Patriot toughness. Each made numerous tackles for loss.
In the championship game Copenhaver made two tackles in the backfield during a goal-line stand, the latter of which he combined with Jack Conkin for a 2-yard loss on a fourth down from the one-foot line.
Copenhaver had returned an interception 58 yards earlier in the quarter, and he returned an interception for a TD in the first-round playoff win against Robinson.
“He’s the best outside linebacker I’ve ever seen at this age,” said Murr, who became the head coach when Science Hill’s impressive junior class of linebackers was in the eighth grade. “He is tremendous on his reads. He’s just a great kid – hard worker and smart. Oh, he’s such a smart football player.”
Levi has been turning heads since he led the Johnson City American Little League 9-12-year-old league in home runs as a 9-year-old.
“He didn’t even play football last year,” Murr said. “I had him in class. I taught him in math and talked him in to coming out, and I’m thankful he did. He’s a beast.”
Conkin, Levi, Alec Hillman, Jake Matherne and Dominic Pickle comprised a productive offensive line. Murr said Conkin, Levi and Hillman outrun some skill players.
Quarterback A.J. Stewart and receiver Caleb Marmol were a dynamic duo. They connected for a 39-yard TD pass to give the Pats a 6-0 lead against Greeneville late in the first quarter of the championship game. They also opened the scoring with a 56-yard strike in the first-round playoff victory against Robinson.
“A.J. Stewart’s been great for us all year,” Murr said. “Marmol made some super catches against Greeneville, and has all year. Anything that was close, he won the battle.”
Attention on Bowman opened up passing opportunities against Greeneville, which lost its season opener 38-14 at Liberty Bell and then won six straight games to earn a rematch.
“He (Bowman) killed us the first game,” Greeneville coach Todd Newberry said. “I mean we couldn’t stop him. And Greg Dykes, our defensive coordinator, put together one heck of a … defensive scheme for him (in the rematch).”
Indeed, Bowman was kept out of the end zone until a crowd-pleasing 11-yard TD in the fourth quarter during which he covered perhaps 50-60 yards of Steve Spurrier Field while reversing course and avoiding 5-6 would-be tacklers. But overloading the box took a toll on Greeneville’s defense.
Marmol’s TD reception was the fourth straight completion on a six-play, 91-yard scoring drive. Marmol also had a an 8-yard catch to on the drive, and Asher Miller (24 yards) and Kain Rogers (13 yards) were part of the four-catch stretch.
“Liberty Bell is really good,” Newberry said. “They beat us the first game of the season … our only other loss. … They’re well coached. They’ve got tremendous athletes. No. 8 (Bowman) is fast.”
Bowman turned heads in a 60-28 win at Sevier in Kingsport. The Patriots scored 24 points in the first quarter en route to the 44-8 win.
“When we played John Sevier up there Malik put on a show,” Murr said. “I don’t know how long he danced (on one run). There were players falling everywhere and nobody could tackle him. And he reversed field. He didn’t make it (to the end zone) on that one, but that something you just don’t coach.
“They were aggravating him over there about transferring to Kingsport. They said they hadn’t seen anybody do anything like that since Malik Foreman was there.”
Promising skill players included Josh Santiago and Chris Thomas, who looked as fast as any Patriot this side of Bowman. Thomas hit the holes hard and frequently found the end zone, especially in a 60-28 win against Robinson when Bowman was sidelined.
“He lit ‘em up,” Murr said. “He’s a good player, too.”
One of Liberty Bell’s most entertaining runs of the season came from cornerback Marquis Griffin when he took an interception 50 yards for a TD that gave the Patriots a 12-0 lead in the third quarter of the championship game. Perhaps the smallest player on the field at the time, Griffin appeared to be corralled twice.
“I don’t know how he got away from those big guys over on the sideline,” Murr said. “I don’t know what he did. He’s just like a jitterbug. His quickness, you know how McGue was – I don’t think he has probably the straight-line speed that McGue had, but side to side, geez. … I mean, you don’t coach that. Twice I thought he was stopped.
“I knew they were going to pick on him because of his size. But he’s the best cover corner we’ve got.”
Murr credited the coaching jobs of assistants Shawn Austin, Anthony Whiteside, Tate Isbell and O’Ryen Scott. Whiteside rushed for over 1,000 yards at Science Hill in 1985 and Scott and Isbell were senior starters when the ‘Toppers began 9-0 in 2012. Austin is a former assistant at the University of Virginia at Wise.
“I can’t say enough about Coach Austin and the defense,” Murr said. “He’s just phenomenal with what he can do. I told ‘em he can coach 10 people in the time it takes me to coach one.”
Jeremiah Runde had a 23-yard interception return in the opening-round playoff win. Aaron Lemkin’s 40-yard fumble return gave the Patriots a 53-0 lead with 2:22 left in the first half of the regular-season finale against Church Hill.
Eighth-grade teams went undefeated under coaches Bart Lyon and Brian “Candyman” Gibson in 2008 (Reed Hayes, Will Adams), 2009 (Aaron Adams, Tucker McPherson) and ’11 (Elijah Mathes, Justin Bedard, Patrick Good, Ian Martin). Their teams combined for a 31-1 record during that span.
Murr said the best teams of his era were Greeneville (Cade Ballard) and Elizabethton (Corey Russell) in 2014 – until this season, that is.
Murr passed Carter coming off the practice field one day this season and the future flashed before his eyes like Bowman in the open field.
“I said, ‘I can’t wait to see what you’ll do with this bunch,’” Murr said. “I know they’re excited to see them coming. … As far as overall team, this is the best team that I’ve seen at this age.”