Friday, Nov. 22, 2013 | 11:45 p.m.
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With only four playoff games on the docket, Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer spend significant time on each of them. They also allow for detours on rap, juicing and ringtones. ***NOTE: We apologize for the return of audio issues, this time on Brewer's microphone. Please turn up the volume in order to hear him.
A celebration of this nature has become common for the Liberty High football program.
Players raised four fingers in the air today after a 56-43 victory against visiting Green Valley High to celebrate the Patriots' fourth-straight Sunrise Regional championship.
Fans started chanting, “Reno, Reno” because the title puts Liberty in the state semifinals next Saturday at Northern Region champ Reed High.
Patriots’ coach Rich Muraco, still dripping wet after players drenched him in water, was interviewed by one reporter after another. He was asked about Liberty’s string of championships and what’s been the key to their dominance.
However, the coach is quick to point out the entire story. It’s part of the Patriots’ tale that’s often forgotten. Once, not too long ago, Liberty was one of the Las Vegas area’s worst programs. They were every other school’s homecoming game — a guaranteed easy win.
The goal wasn’t to win a state championship, which the Patriots this fall are two wins away from accomplishing. It was more much simple: Make the playoffs or have a winning record.
Liberty opened in 2003 and struggled in all sports because the communities near the school were still being constructed, meaning enrollment was nearly 1,000 students lower than schools they competed against. They didn’t come close to qualifying for the playoffs — something Muraco painfully witnessed each fall as an assistant coach.
So, when he gets a little teary-eyed talking about winning a championship, it’s for good reason. Hanging a banner in the gym to document a championship and playing a meaningful game in late fall at times seemed impossible during those early years.
“Through all the hard years at Liberty, I would have never thought that going to the playoffs was a possibility in those early years,” Muraco said. “To be the four-time region champions, and not lose a game (to Sunrise opponents) in those years, it’s special.”
Liberty trailed 16-7 with 7:38 to play in the second quarter, struggling to move the ball against a Green Valley team some felt had the better squad.
That’s when Liberty flexed its muscles, scoring 36 unanswered points in taking the lead for good. The most significant touchdown came with 18 seconds remaining in the first half when Tyler Newman connected with Bryan Roland for a 40-yard touchdown and a 22-16 halftime lead.
Instead of trailing at the break, Liberty stole the game’s momentum.
“We went in with confidence. We didn’t play our best, but we still had the advantage,” Roland said.
The Patriots were just getting started.
Newman, who passed for more than 200 yards and four touchdowns, found Drew Hladek for a 20-yard scoring strike with 4:18 to play in the third quarter for a 13-point lead. After Green Valley fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Newman raced 13 yards for a touchdown a few plays later for a 36-16 advantage.
Then, when Liberty got the ball again, Ethan Tuilagi scored on an 18-yard run to extend the lead to 43-16 with 11:22 remaining.
Game over, right?
Not with Green Valley. The Gators, the Northeast League champions, entered averaging 43 points per game. And they’ve made a habit of rallying from seemingly insurmountable deficits for come-from-behind wins.
So, Green Valley did what it does best — they chipped away at the deficit, scoring three touchdowns in less than four minutes to trim the deficit to 43-30.
On the third touchdown, Christian Lopez’s pass to the corner of the end zone for Gio Hernandez was nearly intercepted, but the Liberty defender couldn’t hold on and Hernandez caught the deflection for six points. It seemed like Green Valley was destined to erase another deficit.
“It was like the perfect storm of what can go wrong was going wrong,” Muraco said of the Green Valley rally, which also included recovering an onside kick. “But we were able to survive it.”
Roland returned the ensuing kickoff deep into Green Valley territory, and Calvin Tubbs put the game out of reach with a 10-yard touchdown run.
Tuilagi added insurance points with a 19-yard touchdown run in the final minutes. Green Valley’s Lopez had a rushing touchdown on the last play, but by then Muraco was already dripping wet from his celebratory water bath.
“We are grateful we got this win. We worked hard for this, all summer and since December last year,” Tuilagi said.
Lopez passed for three touchdowns and nearly 350 yards for Green Valley. Wide receiver Kyler Chavez had one of the best throws of the night, finding Conor Perkins for a 40-yard touchdown on a trick play as part of Green Valley’s fourth-quarter comeback.
This time, however, the Gators came up short.
“We have some seniors who really worked hard to get where we are at,” Green Valley coach Brian Castro said. “When you fall short, it sucks. I’m just so proud with the commitment they showed to the program.”