Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 | 12:30 a.m.
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Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Case Keefer and Ray Brewer preview all of the week's high school football action.
The Pioneers were on the Liberty 8-yard line, and were seemingly ready to score behind the legs of senior running back Donnel Pumphrey. But then the Patriot defense came to life, getting back-to-back sacks to stop the Pioneers' hopes of scoring.
It's a small sample of how things went for Canyon Springs on fourth down.
Liberty stopped Canyon Springs five times on the do-or-die down (1-for-6) as part of a 10-0 victory.
"We were kind of a bend but don't break (defense)," said Rich Muraco, whose team improved to 10-1 and advances to face Coronado in next week's Sunrise title game. "They were able to drive the ball on us. Once they got into the red zone, we were able to play good defense."
Pumphrey, who sat out last week with an injury, returned in top form. He did most of the bending for the Pioneers (7-4), rushing for 107 yards on 21 carries.
"They have an electrifying running back," Muraco said. "We practiced all week on pursuit, running to the ball and wrapping up. We did a good job."
But Pumphrey and the rest of the Pioneer offense sputtered in the red zone. Canyon Springs saw four of its drives end on downs inside Patriot territory, while the other was an interception on fourth down.
"It was frustrating (early on)," said Liberty linebacker Samson Monterde, who finished with five tackles (one for a loss). "But we brought (the energy up when they got close)."
Senior Kai Nacua had another solid game for the Patriots. But instead of his usual offensive output, he was a stalwart on the defensive side of the ball.
Nacua tallied eight tackles with two pass breakups and an interception late in the fourth quarter to kill a Pioneer drive after Canyon Springs returned a blocked field goal 65 yards into Liberty territory.
The interception, essentially, locked up the game as it allowed Liberty to milk time off the clock.
"(He is) the heart of the defense," Monterde said of Nacua.
It was probably a great thing that the defense played so well given the offensive struggles Liberty faced against the Pioneers.
The Patriots' passing game, outside of two critical third-down catches, was nonexistent as Nacua saw constant pressure.
Thankfully for Muraco and Co., they had UNLV commit Niko Kapeli to lean on. Kapeli rushed for 130 yards on 30 carries, including the lone touchdown of the game.
"We've been taking it easy on him these last four or five weeks as we gear up toward this championship run," Muraco said. "He's going to have to carry the rock for us. In certain types of games, we'll have to control the clock and keep the other team off the field."
If there's one drive that will stand out when the Patriots watch film, it will be the opening drive. Liberty marched 75 yards on 11 plays, capped off by a Kapeli 7-yard touchdown.
"We feel confident about running," Kapeli said. "We just hope we can march down the field and score. We want to run out the time as much as we can."
The victory keeps another Sunrise Region title in the Patriots' sights. They play Coronado in the Sunrise Regional title game, which, this year, also serves as a state semifinal game next Saturday at Liberty High.
Unlike the last two weeks when the Patriots have faced run-oriented offenses, they will face a quick-passing Cougars squad riding high in the midst of their finest season since opening in 2001.
"It'll be exciting," Muraco said. "They have a lot of quick screens and lots of passing. ... They basically counter what you show them defensively. They're a high-tempo offense. It'll be more base defense, and knowing assignments."