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April 24, 2014

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high school football:

Liberty looking to make statement, continue solid play against California school in opener

Even though they came up short, the Patriots earned praise for giving a challenge to Gorman in last year’s state semifinals

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Liberty football players Jay Mitchell, Christopher Noone and Phoenix Uptain Thursday, July 26, 2012.

Southeast League

Basic football players Anthony Owens, Mike Roberts and Ian Bates Thursday, July 26, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Liberty Coach Rich Muraco

Liberty High School Coach Rich Muraco talks about the upcoming 2012 football season.

Prep Sports Now

Nevada teams hold it down nationally

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Bishop Gorman and Faith Lutheran pulled off upsets against out-of-state opponents last week. Can Liberty follow suit when it travels to Southern California to challenge Crespi Saturday night? Gorman's got another televised contest, too — against Saint Louis in Hawaii. Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer break down these contests and more on this edition of Prep Sports Now.

One game last fall changed everything for the Liberty High football program. And it wasn’t a game they won.

The Patriots twice led perennial power Bishop Gorman in last year’s state semifinals, and they trailed by just one point midway through the third quarter, before running out of gas in a 56-34 loss.

Although they lost the game, they earned the respect of other teams in the Las Vegas Valley. On that afternoon in late November, the two-time defending Sunrise Region Patriots refused to back down in proving they deserved to be mentioned as one of the state’s best.

“I was happy to a certain extent with how we played against Gorman,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “We didn’t back down. We didn’t lose the game before it was played. They really felt they had a chance to win. As a coach, that is all you can ask for in getting their best effort.”

They will take that same mentality into this fall, starting Saturday with a tough road game against respected Southern California school Crespi High.

Liberty will be playing for more than a solid start to the season. They have the pressure of representing Nevada football on the national stage.

It’s a responsibility Muraco and his players have embraced.

“It is bigger than just a regular season game,” Muraco said. “We want to go represent Nevada football and show Nevada has improved. So, obviously there is some pressure on us. (Nevada teams) might not have the depth with the quality teams (as California), but Gorman is showing Nevada kids are just as good as any team in the country. We want to show Nevada is more than just that one school.”

Even though much stock has been put into the outcome of the game, Muraco has stressed to his players that it is just one game. And it’s a game in August — some 10 weeks before the playoffs, and their ultimate goal of playing for a state title, begins.

“We don’t win state by winning this game, and we don’t lose state by losing this game,” Muraco said. “We just have to keep our main goal in mind and get better every week. We love our preseason schedule. It will prepare us to win.”

The preseason schedule also includes games against strong local opponents Palo Verde and Canyon Springs.

Liberty graduated several key players from last year’s team but returns its two standouts in running back Niko Kapeli (5-foot-9, 215 pounds) and quarterback/linebacker Kai Nacua (6-foot-2, 215 pounds).

Senior QB Kai Nacua

Senior quarterback and defensive back Kai Nacua talks about the upcoming season

Kapeli, who is Liberty’s all-time lead rusher with 4,298 career yards and is verbally committed to UNLV, gained 2,389 yards and had 29 touchdowns last year. Nacau is committed to BYU and returns for his third season at quarterback. Both are part of the Sun’s Preseason All-City team, and both give Liberty a significant advantage each week.

Liberty’s top offensive player might end up being senior Jay Mitchell (5-foot-8, 175 pounds), who transferred from Hawaii. Mitchell will play all over the field offensively as well as kick returns.

“(Mitchell) is just a fast kid. He plays fast with the ball in his hands and is fearless,” Muraco said.

On the offensive line, which is traditionally one of Liberty’s strengths, the Patriots will rely on several newcomers. Senior Chris Noone (6-foot-2, 260 pounds), a transfer from Silverado, will bring experience to the unit as a four-year varsity performer.

Also, tackle Justin Polu, a starter last season as a sophomore, will play both ways at tackle and defensive end. And senior Reno Tu’ufuli (6-3, 260), one of the state’s top discus throwers, returns to help strengthen the line after missing last year.

Defensively, linebacker Phoenix Uptain is one of about five returning starters and will join Nacua and others to lead the defensive attack.

While the performance against Gorman has changed the public’s perception about Liberty, it hasn’t altered the program’s goals for the season.

“We still have the same goal we went into last year with,” said Muraco, who is entering his fourth season. “We always want to make the playoffs, win the division, win the region and win state.”

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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