Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Nov. 15, 2013 | 11:50 p.m.
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Humbled by the vitriol spawned from last week's podcast, Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer try their best to make this edition a happy one. They touch on all the teams that are still alive in the hunt for a state championship while specifically looking back at wins last week from Palo Verde and Canyon Springs.
The Liberty High football team prevailed in more than its share of close playoff games in winning the past three Sunrise Regional championships.
So, when the Patriots trailed visiting Canyon Springs by a touchdown Friday night entering the fourth quarter of the Sunrise semifinals, it would be easy to assume the experience of previous playoff runs would give them an edge.
That wasn’t the case.
This Liberty team relies heavily on underclassmen — players in their first varsity season and others who were reserves on the title teams.
That’s what makes Liberty’s 24-21 come-from-behind victory against Canyon Springs so important. The Patriots had never faced such adversity with this core group of players. And, while it didn’t look good at halftime and for parts of the third quarter, the new-look Liberty Patriots have a confidence-building victory. They are one game away from continuing the tradition with a fourth consecutive Sunrise crown.
“In this situation at the beginning of the year, we would have broke down and not come back like that,” said quarterback Tyler Newman, who passed for two touchdowns, including a 46-yard scoring strike to Deseon McQuaig to even the score at 21 with 9:16 remaining.
After giving up two touchdowns of more than 50 yards in the first half to trail 21-14 at halftime, Liberty’s defense was stingy in the second half in holding Canyon Springs scoreless. What a difference a half makes.
“I told them at halftime, we have to eliminate the big plays and the stupid penalties,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “We made some adjustments at halftime and we were able to stop them. I’m proud of our defensive effort in the second half.”
When the defense forced another second-half punt midway through the fourth quarter, Liberty kicker Austin Fitzgerald went over to his kicking net on the sideline for a few practice kicks.
On a team of younger players, it’s Fitzgerald who has the most experience. The Patriots kicker the past three seasons, he knew his number would be called.
Fitzgerald’s first game-winning kick was a 35-yarder with 3:15 remaining, giving Liberty a three-point lead and setting up its defense for another stop.
“I went over to my net and hit three balls. And I made sure it was the best three balls I have ever hit in my net,” Fitzgerald said. “I imagined the uprights and kicked it through the uprights. Then I went straight on the field and imagined I was kicking into my net.”
Earlier in the game, it didn’t appear Fitzgerald would be needed
Liberty scored on the opening drive of the game on a 4-yard touchdown run from Ethan Tuilagi, which was set up by a long pass from Newman to Noah Jefferson.
But Canyon Springs wouldn’t back down. On its second offensive play, running back Zaviontay Stevenson rushed 78 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at seven.
Newman and McQuaig connected for their first touchdown with 5:07 to play in the first quarter to help Liberty retake the lead, 14-7. But Canyon Springs wouldn’t surrender any more points until the fourth quarter and used a pair of touchdown passes from Bradley Alexander II for the halftime lead. His second scoring strike went 52 yards to Jordan Davis with 1:26 to play in the half.
It was the third time in four seasons that Canyon Springs was eliminated by Liberty in the semifinals. The defeats came by a combined 26 points.
“(Canyon Springs’) Hunkie Cooper is a good coach,” Muraco said. “He has his kids prepared. They play physical. They are always in the right spot. They have good playmakers. They have good athletes over there. We don’t take anything for granted when we play them.”
Liberty advances to play Green Valley in next week’s championship game. It’s a battle of No. 1 seeds and a game some have wanted all season to see.
It will be a chance for the new Liberty Patriots to continue the program’s championship tradition.
“They just believe in each other,” Muraco said of his younger players. “They believe in the system. They didn’t panic.”