WEST LIBERTY - Perhaps the unseasonably warm, late-October weather was too good to be true. It certainly was for the West Liberty football team, which saw its hopes of back-to-back NCAA Division II playoff appearances crumble under an avalanche of self-inflicted wounds.
A 35-13, third-quarter lead wasn't enough in a 53-38 loss to unbeaten Shepherd on Saturday at Russek Field. Nor were 621 yards of total offense or 487 yards passing by quarterback Zach Amedro.
Ultimately, things like 245 yards of penalties and three turnovers - two returned for scores - were too much to overcome. But the real dagger was Deante Steele's 52-yard punt return for a score with 52 seconds left in the third.
''We tell (punter Mike Blewett) don't kick the ball to him and he kicks it right down the middle,'' Hilltoppers coach Roger Waialae said. ''He can kick the ball 10 yards out of bounds; I don't care.
''I don't care if they kick it in the trees! Don't kick it to them.''
As it stands, that singular play will stand as the ultimate microcosm of West Liberty's season.
The game plan all week was to keep the ball away from Steele, one of the most dangerous returners in all of D-II. The Hilltoppers did all day - kicking it on the ground on kickoffs and out of bounds on punts - until the fateful boot.
''For some reason or another we just don't want to listen, and we don't want to be coached sometimes,'' Waialae said. ''Mentally we have some lapses in key situations, and you can't have those.
''We got the lead in the first half because we were playing error-free.''
Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said of post-halftime.
Check out this sequence.
After Amedro hooked up with Ryan Travis for the duo's third score that made it 35-13, the Rams immediately answered with a three-play drive that took 36 seconds.
Then came the punt return and an 88-yard Keon Robinson interception return for a score. That's eight points in 49 seconds to knot the score.
A 24-yard field goal following a Hilltoppers fumble, and a 27-yard fumble return and score 17 seconds later proved too much to overcome.
''They had 24 points defensively or special teams-wise in the second half,'' Waialae lamented. ''You're not going to beat good teams when you do that.
''We self-destructed really. We just gave them the game.''
So the most-anticipated season in school history has been relegated to a best-of-3, with nothing at stake but pride.
''We've got Senior Week coming up - the last home game for the seniors,'' Waialae said. ''They've won a bunch of games, (so) they've got nothing to hang their head on.
'' I can't see them letting down because it's their last three football games.''
Who would have thought we'd be saying that?
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net