Sporting a fresh atmosphere, Liberty High's team has found success on the football field and energized its community.

When Jeff Walters was hired as the school's coach last winter, his first order of business was changing the culture within the downtrodden program. He emphasized team and character building from his first day on the job, getting his players involved in several community service endeavors.

And he gave the team a new motto -- "Pride Matters."

"There definitely has been a different feel," said senior quarterback Ivan Oseguera. "Coach Walters has changed all of our mindsets."

Under the young and enthusiastic Walters, formerly an assistant at rival Freedom, the Lions are having one of their best seasons in more than a decade.

Liberty is 5-4 and will advance to the North Coast Section Division I playoffs for the first time since 2003, becoming eligible with a 14-7 win over Heritage last week. It was the Lions' first-ever win in the annual Brentwood Bowl.

Oseguera said "Pride Matters" has many different meanings, but the common theme is showing good character, respect and integrity.

Walters practiced what he preached earlier this season after realizing that he used an academically ineligible player in decisive wins over Concord and West-Tracy.

The Lions self-reported the issue to the NCS and took two forfeit losses -- reversing their record to 0-2 after having posted their best start to a season since 1998.


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But the Lions didn't let the forfeits ruin their season. They responded with four straight wins to get back on track for a rare playoff appearance.

"A lot of (our success) does have to do with those things we did immediately, especially the character building stuff," Walters said. "The players didn't really bat an eye at the forfeits. We used it as a rallying point and to win every game we could to make sure we weren't left out of the playoffs for some paperwork issues."

The Lions will wrap up the regular season against Walters' former team, Freedom, in this Friday's Bell Game. Walters admits it's going to be "a weird experience" for him to coach against his former colleagues and players.

Freedom, which needs to win to become eligible for the NCS playoffs, will be without star running back Joe Mixon. He was ejected from the Falcons' 28-27 overtime win over Antioch last week and must serve a one-game suspension.

The Lions have their sights set on ending the Falcons' run of seven straight wins in the Bell Game and spoiling Freedom's playoff chances.

"The team has done a great job of just taking it a game at a time and not letting the moment be bigger than it is," Walters said.

ON THE BUBBLE: Freedom isn't the only East Bay team fighting for its playoffs life this weekend as the regular season concludes.

In Division I, Castro Valley can qualify with a winning league record if it can get past Berkeley. Mission San Jose (1-8) can also become eligible with a winning record against Division I teams if it can find a way to stun James Logan.

Division II teams needing a win to qualify include Mt. Eden and Pinole Valley. But with 17 teams already qualified for the 16-team bracket, there's a chance the Monarchs and Spartans wouldn't be chosen for the tournament even if they do become eligible.

Division III is also impacted with 15 teams already qualified and three more -- Bishop O'Dowd, Kennedy-Fremont and Petaluma -- eligible with a win this weekend.

O'Dowd must defeat San Leandro, which has already clinched a share of the West Alameda County Conference-Foothill Division title, and Kennedy faces Newark Memorial.

California School for the Deaf and Stellar Prep face must-win situations in Division V. As in Division II there are already more eligible teams than spots available in the eight-team bracket.

Follow Stephanie Hammon on Twitter at twitter.com/stephhammon.