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April 24, 2014

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Liberty unleashes powerful ground game in 34-14 win over Green Valley

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Justin M. Bowen

Liberty running back Teu Tai fights for yards during a game Friday at home against Green Valley. Liberty won 34-14.

Green Valley at Liberty

Liberty celebrates a 34-14 home win against Green Valley. Launch slideshow »

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Green Valley High caught Liberty off guard by pooching the opening kickoff Friday night and recovering the football deep in the Patriots’ territory.

The Patriots, however, dominated the rest of the way to make their first victory, at 34-14, over the Gators a resounding one.

The Southeast League opener for both teams was highlighted by Liberty’s powerful ground game, a quarterback’s debut and a few other wrinkles by first-year Patriots coach Rich Muraco.

For the past few weeks, Muraco watched 6-foot junior Chris Smith, a transfer from Coronado, run the team in practice.

Friday night, Smith ran the Patriots for real. He had a devastating effect on the game as Liberty unofficially chewed up 413 rushing yards.

“Without a running threat at quarterback, the spread offense just doesn’t work,” Muraco said. “We decided to make a change, to give him opportunities to carry the ball and put added stress on the defense.

“It seemed to work. I think he did a great job with the reads and keeping the ball. It definitely was something they weren’t prepared for.”

Smith ran 17 times for 96 yards, which included a 10-yard touchdown run. His sleight-of-hand kept Green Valley (2-2, 0-1) on its toes all evening.

“We never saw him before,” said Gators coach Matt Gerber. “He did a hell of a job. He’s a quick kid and runs the ball real well. It sure would have been nice to see him play before.”

Smith fell hard on his right hand after handing the ball off on one play, but he downplayed the wrap around his right thumb after the game.

“I depend on my line a lot,” he said. “They did very well this game. They worked as a family and gave me time … It was all family work tonight. All we have to do is work as a team, and we’ll go to the playoffs this year and win.”

Liberty (3-1, 1-0) stopped the Gators on the 15-yard line on the opening series of the game, and a botched snap on a field-goal attempt kept Green Valley off the scoreboard.

Led by the poised Smith, Liberty answered by driving 80 yards in six plays. Junior running back Teu Tai polished off that series with a 15-yard touchdown run.

The Patriots stopped Green Valley on three downs, and Tai capped Liberty’s ensuing 77-yard, nine-play possession with a four-yard TD run through the middle of his line.

This time, Smith faced a third-down situation. But on third-and-14 from the Gators’ 23, he found 6-4 senior Anthony Norris on the right sideline with a 19-yard lob.

“Just a deep ball to our tallest receiver. I didn’t have a good grip on the ball, but I really trust him to go up and get it,” Smith said.

“After that second TD, I really felt the game was ours,” Muraco said. “We were in their heads.”

Green Valley finished with 219 total yards of offense, and its biggest play was sophomore tailback Rakeem Griffin’s 39-yard touchdown run that cut the Gators’ deficit to 27-7 early in the fourth quarter.

But after both teams went three-and-out, Liberty freshman running back Niko Kapeli zipped 47 yards around his left side, cutting the corner and blazing by Green Valley’s defensive backs, to make it 34-7.

That came out of a double-wing formation, the first time the Patriots have shown that all season.

“We practiced that, too, for these guys. We decided to try it, and he busted it for a touchdown,” Muraco said.

Kapeli finished with 130 yards on 10 carries.

“Niko is one of our powerful freshmen,” Smith said. “The kid has speed, he has everything. Anything you want in a running back, Niko has. He goes hard in practice and he’s an outgoing kid. He’s ready to fight.”

Apparently, so are the rest of the Patriots, who have never been to the playoffs. Smith remembered that Foothill, next week’s foe, kept Liberty out of the playoffs a year ago.

“I guarantee you, next week Foothill won’t score,” Smith said.

He makes one start at quarterback and Smith is making such predictions?

“Yeah, I do all the time,” Smith said. “They won’t score.”

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