The Liberty Football Team Isn’t A One-Man Show, But Senior Sione Vaki Sure Can Make It Look That Way At Times •
Sione Vaki stands quietly on the sideline with teammates as the Liberty High football team’s special teams unit drills during a Thursday afternoon walk-through in late October.
Next to teammates, the senior receiver and defensive back’s 6-foot, 190-pound chiseled frame seems to blend in with the crowd.
Yet just five days earlier, he was larger than life.
In arguably the East Bay’s most anticipated game of the regular season — at one of its best and legendary venues, Pittsburg High’s Pirates Stadium — Vaki delivered an individual performance that will be talked about at the Brentwood school and throughout the community for years to come. It will be known as the Sione Vaki Game. If it isn’t already.
“It’s one of the best all-around high school performances I’ve ever seen,” Liberty coach Ryan Partridge told the San Francisco Chronicle a few days removed from the win.
Vaki’s performance that Oct. 19 night included 10 receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns on offense. (He actually caught a third touchdown pass that was wiped out by a Lions penalty). That performance alone would’ve likely made him the star of the 24-21 Bay Valley Athletic League victory. But Liberty likely doesn’t earn that victory without Vaki’s defensive efforts that night, particularly in the fourth quarter.
Over the final nine minutes of the game, as Pittsburg was furiously attempting to complete a comeback and secure its second consecutive BVAL title, Vaki was front and center in three defensive takeaways. He had two interceptions and then forced Pittsburg running back Avant Muldrow to fumble just two steps before he would’ve crossed the goal line for a go-ahead touchdown. The ball rolled out of the end zone for a touchback. The play also counted toward one of his eight tackles in the game.
It was this play that Partridge said Vaki would single out as the one he was most proud of in the victory.
“He’s probably going to say the hit at the goal line,” the coach said at a walk-through the day before the team’s regular-season finale. “We practice that stuff and he put it into action. It’s just who he is. He’s 100-percent effort all times.”
The coach knows his player.
“I would probably say the tackle I made at the 1 (yard line) for the fumble,” Vaki said with barely any hesitation.
Amplifying Vaki’s efforts — and why they won’t be forgotten anytime soon — was what the win over Pittsburg represented for one of the East Bay’s oldest programs.
— It was the Lions’ first win over Pittsburg since 2005.
— It clinched the program’s first league title in more than three decades. Its previous championship came in 1985 as part of the now-defunct Foothill Athletic League.
— The win secured the No. 2 seed in the North Coast Section Open Div. playoffs. A seed which places the Lions one win away from a guaranteed California Interscholastic Federation Regional Bowl berth.
“It was a mixture of relief and excitement,” Partridge said of the watershed victory, which was also the program’s 14th in a row dating back to the previous season’s 35-0 loss to Pittsburg. “The feeling carried on a little further than other wins.”
Notably, what made him most proud about the victory was what came in its aftermath.
“It was the amount of community members and school district members who reached out to me and were so proud of the boys and this program,” Partridge said. “This program has been around for so long that a win like that is important to the program, and important to the school. and it’s really important to our community.”
The day after these comments, Liberty closed its regular season by beating crosstown rival Heritage 49-0. Vaki caught one of quarterback Jay Butterfield’s three touchdown passes in a win that secured the program’s first undefeated regular season.
The touchdown against Heritage was Vaki’s 18th scoring grab of the season — out of just 51 catches through the first 10 games. Yes, he’s averaging BETTER than a touchdown every three receptions. He’s also scored at least one touchdown in 11 straight contests dating back to the 2017 NCS Div. I championshipship victory over Freedom-Oakley last December.
“He works harder than anyone else,” Butterfield said of his MVP receiver. “He’s been working in the weight room. He comes out to the field and tries to improve his craft every day. That’s just what makes him who he is.”
Vaki transferred to Liberty after his sophomore year at Antioch. But Butterfield and Vaki do have some history prior to that.
Butterfield, who many recruiting services consider one of the nation’s best junior quarterbacks, began throwing to Vaki as an eighth-grader in 7-on-7 competitions.
“I think that me and Jay have a stronger bond from playing in our early years at 7-on-7,” Vaki said. “Just having him around me, after coming here when I transferred, it was easier to bond with him really. He just has a great talent, too.”
College programs are lining up for both of them. Several elite programs have made offers to Vaki despite knowing he won’t suit up for them for at least two more years. Vaki, the youngest of 11 kids, intends to begin his two-year Mormon mission upon graduating this spring.
“They’ve all been very supportive of that,” said Vaki, who has made an official visit to Utah State but is working on planning others to USC and Washington State. His other offers include Oklahoma State, Tennessee, Boston College, Utah, Nevada, San Jose State and Howard University. He plans to commit in January and sign in February.
Partridge undoubtedly has touted Vaki to these colleges as both a player — and person — worth waiting for.
“Physical toughness. Mental toughness. Commitment to our program. His family. His faith. The guy is the prototypical player you want,” Patridge said. “He’s coachable. He works harder than everyone. He’s a loving, caring individual that loves his teammates and his coaches. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime-type player and person.”
And now Vaki, Butterfield and the rest of the Lions have a shot at completing a once-in-a-lifetime season for a program that’s been playing football since 1914. In 2017, they helped bring the school its first NCS title. But the NCS gives its Div. I CIF bowl berth to its Open Div. runner-up. That means a semifinal win over Clayton Valley-Concord on Nov. 17 will assure the Lions of a chance to play for state glory.
“We just need to continue to work hard and stay dedicated,” Vaki said.
If the Lions are following his example, chances for success are high.