Friday, Oct. 28, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer look across the Las Vegas valley at the playoff races still alive entering the last week of the regular season. Does Canyon Springs have a shot against Las Vegas? What about Foothill vs. Liberty? Listen in for discussion on these topics and more.
With realignment on the way next year, Thursday marked the final night of the Henderson-exclusive Southeast Division.
At least the league went out in style.
“It was a shootout,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “Usually, you don’t see those kinds of games with us.”
It felt more like an old-fashioned duel than a shootout for most of the night because of the performance from each team’s best player. Foothill senior receiver Kyle Keplinger and Liberty junior running back Niko Kapeli matched each other shot-for-shot throughout the entire game.
Both scored five touchdowns between rushing and receiving combined. Kapeli marched in his third touchdown with eight minutes to go in the second quarter from 64 yards out to give Liberty a 21-14 lead. Keplinger answered with his third score a second before halftime to tie the game with a 17-yard touchdown reception.
The Patriots and Falcons fought to the rhythm Kapeli and Keplinger provided for the whole 48 minutes.
“They are the two best players in the league, no doubt in my mind,” Muraco said. “We’re doing the all-league voting this week and if my kid doesn’t get the MVP, that kid should get the MVP. He’s by far the best kid we’ve faced. He does it all.”
Kapeli carried the ball 36 times for 304 yards and four touchdowns. His first score came on the opening possession of the night when quarterback Kai Nacua hit him in stride for a 55-yard touchdown.
Kapeli scored what would wind up as the deciding touchdown with 1:51 left in the third quarter when he bullied into the end zone from the one-yard line to make the score 42-28. Although Foothill struck twice in the next three minutes to answer — with one of the touchdowns appropriately being a one-yard run from Keplinger — it missed an extra point to stay behind.
“This was one of my goals for this year — to get a 300-yard game,” Kapeli said. “I finally got that, so it feels great.”
Foothill had its chances in the final 10 minutes, but came up excruciatingly short. The Falcons appeared to catch the break they needed when they the Patriots fumbled one yard outside of the red zone with 4:26 left to play.
But Foothill running back Brandon Wiltz — who had 96 yards on 12 carries — made his only mistake of the night on the next play. He fumbled right back and gave the ball to Liberty, which added seven points worth of insurance two minutes later.
“Our whole style is to drive, eat clock and score,” Muraco said. “And then make them earn their scores, not have one drive that lasts five seconds and the next in a minute. They put a lot of pressure on our offense, but we stepped up.”
Foothill got the ball back with more than two minutes left, making a scoring drive far from out of the question. Sophomore quarterback Drew Doxtator, who went 15-for-29 for 271 yards and four touchdowns, completed a couple passes on the drive but his final throw landed in the hands of a diving Nacua.
“I knew they were trying to go short and then catch us deep after a few short routes,” Nacua said. “I just wanted to make sure I had my dude and I saw the ball coming. I prayed I’d catch it and it landed in my chest.”
Despite Liberty’s victory, no one was executed in this duel. Foothill will take the No. 2 seed from the Southeast and host Desert Pines in the first round of the playoffs. With the top rank, Liberty hosts Valley.
The two teams could meet again in the Sunrise Region finals in three weeks. After what they witnessed Thursday, no one on the Liberty sidelines anticipated Foothill losing in the opening two rounds.
“I expect to see them again,” Kapeli said. “We’ve just got to prepare harder and not let them have all of those big plays.”