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November 1, 2014

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high school football:

State or bust: Liberty hopes the third time is a charm in state semifinals

Liberty has lost the past two years in the state semifinals, will face rival Coronado at 1 p.m. Saturday with a berth in title game at stake

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Liberty players sing their fight song after defeating Palo Verde Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Liberty won the game 42-28.

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Gorman, Liberty and....Coronado? Previewing the semifinals

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Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer expected Bishop Gorman and Liberty to be in this position, one game away from the state championship on Thanksgiving weekend. Coronado comes as the season's surprise. Brewer and Keefer discuss whether the Cougars can take it a step further and everything else concerning the state semifinals.

When Rich Muraco took over as the Liberty High School football coach in 2009, the Patriots had never made the playoffs and had won just 14 games in the school’s six years of existence.

Some four years later, they will play for their third straight Sunrise Regional championship at 1 p.m. Saturday against visiting Coronado.

The goal was simple during Muraco’s first season: Make the playoffs.

Now, because this year’s Sunrise championship doubles as the state semifinals, anything less than winning the region would be a disappointment because Liberty’s remarkable turnaround from perennial loser to respected power has included losses in the past two state semifinals. The players wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than being in next weekend’s state championship game.

“We have to get over that hump and get to that state championship game,” said Muraco, who has a 40-9 career record. “That is why we put in all of the hard work.”

One of Muraco’s first priorities in building the program has been changing the mentality of the players. To be the best, the Patriots had to roll up their sleeves and put in the work. Fittingly, one of the trademarks of their success is the power running game, which is led by big and physical linemen. They play smash-mouth football, often wearing out an opponent by the end of the game.

“When I took over, with all the coaches and stuff, we decided we needed to change the attitude of the kids a little bit,” Muraco said. “It really came down to the kids working hard. That first year they worked harder in the offseason probably than any I team I’ve had since. It is really about believing in yourself.”

A similar script is playing out at Coronado.

First-year coach Brad Talich is calling the right shots in his initial campaign, leading the Cougars to an 8-2 mark and a school-record two playoff wins. Coronado, which opened in 2001, had just one playoff victory entering the season and hadn’t played a postseason game since 2005.

Now, they are playing on the state semifinal weekend — a spot, the past few years, reserved for Liberty and three-time defending state champion Bishop Gorman. Gorman will play at Reed High of Northern Nevada in the other semifinal.

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Liberty's Niko Kapeli and Kai Nacua quietly celebrate their victory over Palo Verde Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Liberty won the game 42-28.

“The kids (at Coronado), they believe they are winners,” Muraco said. “They believe they can win. It feeds into itself. You get that confidence. That is what happened here. Once you change the culture, people started believing. (The Liberty players) worked harder and they did the things you asked them to do. They believe in you. They went to battle, and it’s been successful since then.”

Liberty’s rise to perennial power can be partially credited to a pair of four-year varsity performers. In each of Liberty’s record-breaking victories over the years, it’s safe to assume running back Niko Kapeli and quarterback/linebacker Kai Nacua have played a big role in the win.

They’ve also been a part of the past two state semifinal defeats. Last year, Kapeli had 237 total yards and two touchdowns against Bishop Gorman, and the Patriots twice had touchdown leads but lost, 56-34.

Two years ago, they battled the elements at Reno’s McQueen High, narrowly losing, 7-6.

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Liberty running back Niko Kapeli shoves away Canyon Springs defensive back A.J. Cooper during their game Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. Liberty won the game 23-20.

“It helps out a lot,” Kapeli said of the past two state semifinal games. “We know what the feeling is like to lose and don’t want to experience it again. Hopefully, we can pull it off this time.”

While the UNLV-commit Kapeli is the program’s all-time leading rusher with more than 5,400 career yards, Nacua’s versatility on both sides of the ball has been vital to Liberty’s success all season. Nacua is a three-year starter at quarterback, a three-star college recruit at linebacker and verbally committed to BYU, and only comes off the field on kickoffs.

He had four touchdowns and 148 yards rushing two weeks ago in the Sunrise quarterfinals against Silverado and has shined in virtually all of Liberty's (10-1) tight games this fall.

“He has really turned the corner and become elite. Just an amazing player,” Muraco said. “He is the best player on the field every Friday night. Every single game we have played this year, he’s the best player on the field. He just takes over the game. Kai can do so much. He does everything. He plays receiver, quarterback, running back. He can defend. He is the most dominant high school kid. He does everything out there for me.”

Yet, for all of the accolades and high praise, Nacua knows his legacy will partially be defined Saturday against Coroando. A victory would be yet another accomplishment in his tenure; a loss would be a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise stellar career.

“All we have to do is stick to our game plan,” Nacua said. “We have experience and we know what it takes to make it to state. It’s our last year. We want to go out with a bang.”

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Liberty High School football coach Rich Muraco during the 2011 season.

The same can be said for the players at Coronado, especially if it means beating nearby rival Liberty.

The schools, which are located about two miles apart on opposite sides of St. Rose Parkway, had their rivalry intensify four years ago when the Clark County School District allowed Coronado students to transfer to Liberty and immediately be eligible athletically. Players such as Sam Tai and Teddie Efthemeou, two key pieces in Liberty’s turnaround, were two of about five transfers to immediately impact the football program.

Needless to say, it also sparked the rivalry. And make no doubt about it, Saturday’s game is easily the most important game in series history.

One team will represent the Sunrise in next week’s state championship game and have ultimate bragging rights — for the foreseeable future.

“There is definitely a lot of smack (already) being talked,” Muraco said. “Those people at Coronado look down their nose at people from Liberty.”

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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