Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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It's the game everyone expected for the state championship — Bishop Gorman vs. Liberty. Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer play oddsmaker and try to set the appropriate line on the game. They settle on Gorman -25, with opinions split on which team covers at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday.
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- State championship picks
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- Gorman weathers valiant effort from Reed, advances to face Liberty in state title game
- State or bust: Liberty hopes the third time is a charm in state semifinals
- High school football section
This game was over before it started.
That was the theme on several Friday nights for the Liberty High football program in the school’s initial seasons, struggling because housing developments near the Henderson school still were being constructed and enrollment numbers were too low to field competitive athletic teams.
One game stands out for Patriots coach Rich Muraco: In the first home game in school history, they were defeated by Bishop Gorman, 70-0.
Liberty had no seniors that 2003 season, and Gorman was led by future NFLer DeMarco Murray. Liberty, quite simply, didn’t stand a chance.
Fast forward to the 2012 season.
Gorman is still Gorman. Liberty, thanks to those homes finally being built and several players transferring to the school on open enrollment, is not far behind.
At 12:15 p.m. Saturday, Liberty (11-1) will play its most significant game in school history when it takes on Gorman in the state championship at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Three-time defending state champion Gorman has a 49-game winning streak against Nevada opponents, winning all but one game by more than 20 points.
Beating Gorman is a challenge several others have failed at in the championship game — in the past three state games, Gorman has won by an average of 41.6 points. But for Liberty, being the underdog is a role in which they are most comfortable.
After all, transforming the program from those long nights in 2003 to being a perennial Sunrise Region power surely seemed impossible at times. Muraco, who was the Patriots’ wide receiver and defensive backs coach until becoming head coach in 2009, has been there through all the adversity.
“Five or six years ago it was, ‘God, I hope we make the playoffs someday,’” Muraco said. “It wasn’t even on our radar.
“I’ve had some time to reflect on it, especially being here for 10 years and seeing where the program has come from and experiencing the loss when Gorman beat us 70-0 our first year. This is special, especially doing it with our seniors.”
Some expect Saturday's result to be similar to the 2003 game. While Liberty hasn’t lost to a Sunrise Region opponent the past three seasons, trying to match nationally ranked Gorman has given most fits. Gorman has outscored opponents 3,042-641 the past four years during Tony Sanchez’s 59 games as coach.
Liberty, however, isn’t like most opponents.
The Patriots proved they could play with Gorman during last year’s state semifinals, taking a touchdown lead twice in the first half and only trailing by one point midway through the third quarter before losing, 56-34.
That result gave the Patriots’ players confidence. And even though they lack the state title game experience of Gorman, anything is possible once the ball is kicked off.
“You have to keep in mind they are kids just like we are,” Liberty senior linebacker Phoenix Uptain said. “They are in high school. They are just like us. They put their pants on one leg at a time just like us."
Part of the Liberty turnaround can be credited to the duo of running back Niko Kapeli and quarterback/linebacker Kai Nacua. The duo have had a hand in all of Liberty’s significant wins the past four years as it reached the playoffs for the first time in 2009 and have won the last three Sunrise championships. This year, they have accounted for 60 percent of the Liberty touchdowns.
But it’s going to take more than two players to beat Gorman’s star-studded roster.
Liberty senior wide receiver Jay Mitchell, who has 22 receptions for 483 yards and five touchdowns, provides a complement to the rushing attack of Kapeli and Nacua. Liberty’s bread and butter is its power running game, but the Patriots also have aired it out this year in accomplishing offensive balance. In last week’s state semifinal victory against Coronado, the Patriots passed for 299 yards and rushed for 214 yards.
“On the offensive side of the ball, we have to find ways to put points on the board,” Mitchell said. “Whatever plays have to be made, all of us have to do what coach wants us to and make plays for the team.”
Duplicating the dominance against Gorman will be easier said than done. At least it’s been that way the past three title games. Last year, Reed entered with a 12-1 record and had outscored opponents 676-199. That didn’t matter as the Reno area school trailed 55-7 at halftime.
Yes, beating Gorman won’t be easy. And, yes, being in the spotlight against a Gorman team with players battle-tested in big games could be the biggest challenge.
Just ask Reed. Or McQueen in 2010. Or Del Sol in 2009.
“In the big scheme of things, it is just another football game,” Muraco said. “You want the kids obviously to be amped up and play well. But you don’t want it to where they walk into the stadium and they are in awe, and all of a sudden it is the state championship game and they play nervous, they play tight.
“As a coach, you want them to come out ready to play, play loose and play physical. We are treating it the same this week as every week. It’s all about routine.”