How strong is Liberator football? 

I’m really not sure anymore. 

For most of the year, we’ve watched Bolivar roll right over most opponents. They won 54-8 over Eldon, 25-0 over Hannibal, 59-3 at Marshall, 60-14 over Union and 49-7 against Clinton. 

Sure, Center got an early lead on the Liberators in Kansas City. But Hayden Burks and the team’s talented linemen drove down the field to take the advantage, and Bolivar won again. By the second half, they seemed in command.

The team’s collection of dynamic offensive playmakers has risen to every occasion. Its special teams have been nearly perfect in what, so far, has been a perfect year for Bolivar. 

Its defense has suffocated, stuffed, sacked or flattened just about everyone who lines up on the other side. The Liberators have held six opponents to single digits, including holding three scoreless. 

But, when a team does that, you have to wonder, is it them or everyone else? 

Bolivar’s opponents have, on average, a 4-6ish record.

And, while a 73-0 win over 2-7 Hillcrest Friday, Nov. 1, doesn’t do much to silence concerns that they’ve played below their skill level, Bolivar’s 59-35 takedown of Cape Central in the final game of the regular season should.

The Liberators overcame an opponent that hung around longer than any other has all year. They were behind twice, including during a near-disaster punt after an errant snap that Burks just managed to get off as defenders closed in. 

We knew the Liberators had the conditioning, but what we saw Friday, Oct. 25, was that they had the character to back it up.

It will take both to win a district championship a week and a half from today.

A district championship a year after a 4-6 2018 season?

Maybe so.

This is, admittedly, my first year covering this team.

I didn’t watch the Liberators’ experience the tough losses and big hurdles of last year. I’ve only ever known them as a winning team.

Here’s my theory: Through those trials, this year’s upperclassmen developed the character to match the skill, size and speed they’ve displayed in 2019. 

Asked earlier this season if they could topple No. 2 West Plains or No. 1 Webb City, I’d have likely offered a non-committal answer.

Bolivar faces the Zizzers in West Plains on Friday, Nov. 8. The winner will likely face Webb City, which is ranked to win over Willard this week, for the district championship next week. Both West Plains and Webb City are defending district champions with pedigrees of recent postseason wins.

But this month, color me a believer in the blue and gold.

I’m reminded of a time earlier in 2019, when the BH-FP put together special coverage on Bolivar’s varsity wrestlers, who grappled for a historic second-place finish at the state competition, and Burks, who took an individual gold. 

In my interviews with Burks and wrestling coach Jeff Davis, both told me about the leadup to the title match and the nerves that came along with it.

Neither wanted the distraction of defending Burks’ perfect undefeated 2018-19 record to interfere with his state run. It’s tough, and both explained the mindset work mastered to accomplish it.

Davis actually told me, that frankly, a few losses over the season may have helped.

Sometimes, winning takes not being afraid to lose.

But this fall, I think we’re seeing what Burks’ opponents on the mat and Bolivar’s foes on the gridiron have come to realize or will soon understand — that undefeated record was earned. Maybe, they’re just that good.

•••

Speaking of turnarounds, I’d be remiss not to mention this year’s Lady Liberator volleyball squad, which finished with a 15-17-1 record, according to the Missouri State High School Sports Activities Association. Bolivar ended last year with a 4-23-3 record. Praise is due to coach Tony Phelps and this year’s athletes. 

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