Behind a young, fiery coach, the Liberty Lions are on the cusp of their best season in decades
By CHACE BRYSON | Editor
With the great majority of his football coaching career still in front of him, Jeff Walters will face many critical moments in front of his teams.
They will be moments which transcend the typical pregame or postgame address; moments which come along only a few times a season. They will be moments when he must choose just the right tone and just the right message.
Walters, who turns 29 on Oct. 12, faced one of those moments on Sept. 19 in the immediate aftermath of just his 15th game as coach at Liberty High.
His team was gathered near the goal post of the south end zone at Monte Vista. It had just completed a milestone victory. In knocking off the six-time North Coast Section championship program from Danville — by a slightly sloppy, yet still convincing score of 34-7 — it had become the first Lions team to begin a season 4-0 in more than 40 years.
After spending a few minutes talking to a reporter, Walters took the stage in front of his team and paused.
And then he thundered.
His tone was stern. His message was this: Do not be satisfied. You aren’t as good as you think you are. Yet.
The truth of the matter — which Walters invariably knows, and has probably been told by any number of Liberty alumni and fans throughout the Brentwood community — is that this Liberty team IS that good. It’s big, fast and physical with experience at nearly every position.
But running a program that can claim just five winning seasons since 1980, hasn’t won a league title since 1985 and still seeks its first NCS playoff victory, Walters understands that his goal isn’t simply to win — it’s about teaching the habits and characteristics of winning.
“We preach to them to play for each other; play for the moment,” Walters said as he watched over the 15 minutes of drill work that began the team’s practice on the Monday following the win over Monte Vista. “Just play intelligent. That’s ultimately what’s going to dictate our success this year. When we get into that close game, are we the ones that keep our cool heads? Or are we the ones who lose our heads and start being something we’re not?”
As it turns out, one can add another descriptor to this Lions team: coachable.
In the week following the Monte Vista victory, Liberty found itself in a dogfight against an athletic and physical San Leandro team. The Pirates had a 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line mid-way through the third quarter of a 7-7 tie. Liberty’s defense held and forced San Leandro to settle for a go-ahead field goal.
Williams — who admits to not having the most stable home life as he and his mom have “moved around a lot” — transferred to Liberty from McClymonds in January 2014 and has found some solid ground on the Brentwood campus. It’s also given him his first chance to play interscholastic football after more than a decade of Pop Warner.
“He got my attention when he started playing basketball (at Liberty),” Lions senior safety Kyle Trego said. “He came over and introduced himself to me and said ‘I can’t wait until football season.’ He was talking about football during basketball season. He couldn’t wait. I saw how athletic he was. He was dunking and I was like ‘Who is this kid?’”
Coincidentally, that’s exactly what opposing coaches and players have been asking themselves about Trego after facing him on the football field the past two seasons.
The hard-hitting free safety carries the nickname of “The Missle” and is unquestionably the linchpin to the fierce Lions defense. He is a two-time first-team All-Bay Valley Athletic League defensive honoree, including a unanimous selection as a sophomore in 2012.
In now his third season on varsity, few Lions are more qualified to put the program’s recent success into perspective.
“Since Coach Walters came in (in 2013) it’s been a positive attitude ever since,” Trego said. “It’s a new feeling. My sophomore year, it was still football, but now it’s kind of special. (Walters) showed that he truly believes in us, and he puts all his faith and effort into us.”
Walters’ road to Liberty had more than a few stops. He’s a graduate of Del Oro-Loomis, where he played quarterback for the Golden Eagles and well-respected coach Casey Taylor. After graduating from Chico State, Taylor welcomed Walters back as an assistant coach for two seasons. Walters then spent single seasons at Whitney-Rocklin and Durham before landing a teaching job and assistant coaching position at Freedom — the chief rival of Liberty.
Walters was providing support to the Freedom JV staff from the coaches booth in 2012 when he first got a notion of the type of talent he now coaches as seniors at Liberty.
“That (Liberty JV) team won on a last-second field goal,” Walters recalled. “I was coaching in the booth and Liberty PA announcer, Tom Dempsey, almost knocked me over as he ran down the stairs yelling that somebody needed to grab the victory flag. That’s kind of when I knew that in my heart, Liberty was a place I could see myself being.”
That following spring he was applying for the head coaching position after former coach Nate Smith chose to step down to spend more time with family.
The Lions won their first two games under Walters, only to give them back after a paperwork error led to the use of an ineligible player. The team, rallying behind Walters’ motto of ‘Pride Matters,’ recovered to finish 5-5 and make the NCS Div. I playoffs where it pushed perennial power James Logan-Union City to the limit before succumbing 14-7.
Freedom coach Kevin Hartwig was not surprised at how quickly Liberty transformed.
“He just had an energy and willingness to learn,” Hartwig said of Walters’ time on his staff. “Knowing him and his energy, that was what (Liberty) needed. He got that whole school to buy in.”
Indeed, “Pride Matters” is a mantra used across Liberty athletics now.
Walters is quick to heed his own advice, though. He’s not going to be satisfied. He’s not as good a coach as he or others might think he is. Yet.
“Obviously, this isn’t something that I want to go away,” Walters said. “I love the feeling, so I want to make sure the school and especially the players understand that it takes hard work to stay on top. Everyone is trying to knock you down.
“It shouldn’t be something where we feel special anymore. It should be ‘This is what we’re expected to do, so let’s just do it.’”
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