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October 1, 2014

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Liberty headed to Sunrise championship game after beating Canyon Springs

Sam Tai adds to his memorable week with a game-changing fourth quarter

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Justin M. Bowen

Teu Tai of Liberty looks for an opening in the Canyon Springs defense Thursday in the Sunrise semifinal. Liberty advances with a 26-13 win.

Liberty advances

Liberty celebrates after defeating Canyon Springs 26-13 Thursday in the Sunrise semifinal. Launch slideshow »
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Las Vegas Sun reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer discuss their failed attempt to predict the Southwest and Northwest divisions at the beginning of the season and break down this week's six playoff matchups.

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Liberty coach Rich Muraco didn’t need the song.

The Liberty High Patriots serenaded Muraco with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for the coach’s 40th birthday minutes after their second round playoff game against Canyon Springs Thursday night. But the players had already given Muraco all he wanted on the field.

Liberty advanced to the Sunrise Region finals, where they will travel to Las Vegas High next week, for the first time in school history with a 26-13 victory against Canyon Springs.

“It’s very special for all of us,” senior defensive end Sam Tai said. “We’ve just got to keep pushing harder and harder for our goal of state.”

The Patriots may have joined together to get Muraco the present he wanted, but it was Tai who wrapped it and put the bow on it.

Tai, a day after committing to play college football at UCLA, had three sacks in the final five minutes of the game. Two of his sacks ended drives for Canyon Springs, which trailed only 14-13 with two minutes left in the game.

“He gets like that,” Muraco said. “When he gets in a groove, he’s hard to stop.”

It was Canyon Springs quarterback D’Vante Howard who was in a groove for the first three quarters. Howard accounted for 217 yards of total offense through the first three quarters for the underdog Pioneers.

Senior receiver Trey Evans was his favorite target, catching 12 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns. Howard also excelled scrambling out of the pocket when Tai and the Patriots broke down the pass protection.

He kept slipping away from sacks and turning them into positive plays.

“I was working so hard in that first half to get him, but he was slippery,” Tai said. “I made some adjustments at halftime and we talked it over. It worked out well for me.”

Tai also set up Liberty’s second touchdown when he caught a 20-yard pass over his shoulder from Kai Nacua at the 5-yard line.

Nacua ran it in from the 1-yard line two plays later, one of three rushing touchdowns for the sophomore quarterback. Jordan Kapeli, who rushed for 25 yards on four carries, scored Liberty’s other touchdown.

Younger brother Niko Kapeli had 19 carries for 98 yards. Teu Tai rushed nine times for 75 yards.

“You can say all you want about all the skill people in the world, but if you don’t win at the point of attack up front on offense or defense, you don’t win football games,” Canyon Springs coach Hunkie Cooper said. “Liberty was able to do that.”

Liberty made plenty of mistakes, though. The Patriots twice fumbled on the 1-yard line and the Pioneers recovered both times.

Liberty also had seven penalties for 60 yards, including a false start on fourth-and-1 from the 8-yard line late in the game, missed a field goal and missed two extra points.

“I thought we had opportunities to win this football game, but we didn’t seize the moment,” Cooper said. “When you give a team like that gas, the fire is going to build.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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