Salina Liberty eager to take step forward against Wichita Force

The Salina Liberty passed their first test last week in a non-league game against Arlington, but now the pursuit of a Champions Indoor Football championship begins in earnest.

The roster was trimmed to the league limit of 25 on Wednesday — 21 can be active for each game — and all that remained was some fine-tuning for Friday's CIF opener against the Wichita Force. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Tony's Pizza Events Center.

"I feel good about it," Liberty coach Heron O'Neal said of his roster. "We have depth where we need it and versatility where we need. Now it's just (determining) who gives us the best opportunity to win against Wichita."

While Salina opened with a 62-17 victory over Arlington, it will be the first outing for the Wichita Force, which should bear little resemblance to the 2019 team. Last year's CIF season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"They have film on us and we don't have any on them," O'Neal said of the Force. "That's an advantage for them. They have all new coaches."

But while Wichita sat idle, O'Neal used the blowout of the Longhorns as a live dress rehearsal and a final opportunity for borderline players to make a lasting impression.

"That's probably one the advantage we have, and that's game experience," he said. "Last week 19 of our 27 who played, that was their first game, and they had only had five practices.

"To put up as many points as we did and not give up any more than we did was promising. But we still have a long way to go."

Salina Liberty vs. Wichita Force
The defense should be set with the return of six starters from the Liberty's 2019 team that advanced to the Champions Bowl. Four of them — ends Travis Taylor and Jake Lattimer and defensive backs Isiah Barfield and Kendrick Parker — did not suit up for the Arlington game but will be in the lineup against Wichita.

"That first game we were able to see who can play at a certain level and who we need to move on from here and get better," O'Neal said. "Especially on defense we know who we've got."

The offense is more of a work in progress, though Tracy Brooks is penciled in at running back after leading the CIF in rushing and rushing touchdowns in 2019. Brooks scored both times he touched the ball in the Arlington game.

The backups at running back will be veteran Dominique Carson, who did not play last week, and Nelson Brown. Brown rushed for 37 yards and a touchdown on five carries against Arlington to nail down the final spot.

The odd man out at running back was Charles Arnold, who had three touchdowns — two of them on kick returns — in the Arlington game.

At wide receiver, Ed Smith sat out the Arlington game but returns after catching 32 passes for 458 yards and nine touchdowns in 2019.

Quarterbacks Mitch Kidd and Tyrie Adams both made the team and continue to battle for the starting job. Adams suffered a minor injury and was limited to four passes and three rushing attempts last week, while Kidd completed 6 of 9 passes for 104 yards and three touchdowns.

"We have one more practice (Thursday)," O'Neal said Wednesday. "It's a lot closer than people think.

"When it's as close as it is, when it gets close to game time, I usually go with my gut and who I think will give us a better chance to win."

After the final cuts, two former Kansas Wesleyan players — defensive end Shaq Bradford and offensive lineman Martin Cintora — made the team, as did Bethany products Tre Roberts at defensive backs and Oscar Scott at linebacker.

Roberts had two interceptions last week and Bradford several sacks in his debut.

"It was definitely a good warmup game for us," Bradford said. "I know it's going to be better competition throughout the season, but I'm ready (and) this team is ready.

"Like we said from the beginning of the season, the goal is a championship and the mission is just starting."

O'Neal is looking for a step forward from his team as the level of competition rises.

"This is our first league game," he said. "That first game counted and I'm glad we won, even though we didn't play that well.

"The good thing is we've got a group of good football players and a bunch of good guys. That shows we did a good job of recruiting, and I can't wait for our opportunity to build off of last week."