Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011 | 8:06 a.m.
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Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer disagree on the Liberty vs. Las Vegas matchup for the same reasons as last year. They come to a consensus on the rest of the games, but also break down the matchups.
Las Vegas High football coach James Thurman has stressed each week for his players to play a faceless opponent on Friday nights.
Instead of worrying about the opposition — whether weak or strong — on the other side of the field, Thurman tells his players the first step to victory is executing their game plan successfully.
On most nights in Las Vegas’ weak Northeast Division, the faceless opponent strategy is not overlooking a struggling opponent. But Thursday in the Sunset Regional semifinals, the Wildcats will face a tall order in beating host Liberty (9-1). Not only did the defending Sunrise champion Patriots defeat Las Vegas in last year’s title game, they physically manhandled and dominated for virtually the entire night.
“We aren’t even talking about last year,” Thurman said. “It’s two different teams; two different years. This is 2011 Vegas vs. 2011 Liberty. Hopefully we can compete a little better this year.”
The faceless opponent strategy might be a good idea for the other underdog teams in this week’s semifinals.
In the Sunrise Region’s other semifinal game, Basic (6-4) travels to Foothill in a rematch of one of the state’s best rivalry games, the Battle for Boulder Highway. This year, Basic led 28-7 before Foothill (8-2) stormed back for a 42-35 victory.
In the Sunset Region, Centennial travels to Palo Verde in a rematch of last year’s semifinal game where Palo Verde was victorious. Additionally, Palo Verde (10-0) had no troubles beating Centennial in the regular season, rushing for 310 yards in a 49-12 win.
In the Sunset’s other game, two-time defending state champion Bishop Gorman hosts Arbor View, which it beat 56-7 three weeks ago. Arbor View (9-2) took the game last minute on its bye week, and while the Aggies are one of the city’s top five teams, proved to be no challenge for nationally ranked Gorman.
While the games won’t be decided until Thursday night, each of the four teams have a tall task in earning their redemption. Talk with the coaches, however, and they feel anything is possible once the ball is kicked off — especially if their teams are being overlooked.
Some feel Arbor View shouldn’t have taken the game with Gorman, but for Aggies coach Dan Barnson there is no second-guessing.
“We are a better football team from playing them the first time,” Barnson said. “I don’t know if people are going to want to believe that but we are.”
Centennial (7-3) might be the most improved team of the group. Senior running back Jacobi Owens has rushed for 1,343 yards and 13 touchdowns this fall, but against Palo Verde was knocked out with an injury in the first quarter after just three carries.
It was the last game of Centennial’s awful start to the season, where they started with three straight defeats — against Las Vegas, Arbor View and Palo Verde. Needless to say, this is a different team in winning their last seven games.
“We were playing a lot of younger kids early in the season and they have gotten better,” Evans said.
Evans knows there aren’t many people in Southern Nevada rooting for his team — eliminating Palo Verde would prevent the annual Gorman-Palo Verde playoff game next week in the Sunset finals that typically draws 5,000 fans and is the most anticipated game in Southern Nevada each year.
“All week long we have been trying to impress on the kids they have nothing to lose,” Evans said. “Palo Verde is the one with the pressure (to reach the Gorman game).”
The Basic-Foothill showdown is expected to be the closest. The ball definitely didn’t bounce in Basic’s favor in the second half against Foothill in the initial meeting, where Basic also lost quarterback Eddie Vega late in the game.
Containing the one-two punch of quarterback Drew Doxtator and wide receiver Kyle Keplinger will be Basic’s biggest hurdle. Keplinger has 60 receptions for 914 yards and 17 touchdowns, which is one of the finest years ever for a Henderson area receiver.
“We are going to have to try to keep the ball out of his hands,” Basic coach Jeff Cahill said. “When he does get it, will have to rally to the ball.”
For Las Vegas (9-1), stopping Liberty’s Niko Kapeli will be easier said than done. The junior has carried the ball 270 times, gaining 1,872 yards and scoring 23 touchdowns. On most plays, he runs between the tackles and takes advantage of Liberty’s big and physical offensive line.
Faceless opponent or not, it’s no secret that could give Las Vegas fits.
“I don’t know if you slow him down as much as you try to contain him a little bit,” Thurman said of Kapeli. “You have to try to keep him to 2, 3 or 4 yards a pop.”