Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Aug. 23, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Three summers ago, the Liberty High football team took the field with two sophomores penciled in as starters at key positions.
The program was fresh off its first playoff appearance and optimism was high, but those sophomores would have to prove themselves.
The duo — quarterback Kai Nacua and running back Niko Kapeli — more than exceeded expectations. Kapeli became the program’s all-time leader rusher, and Nacua was arguably Nevada’s top player last fall, combining to lead the Patriots to the past three Sunrise Regional championships.
Liberty coach Rich Muraco feels another group of sophomores could follow a similar script in the next three years.
The Patriots open the season at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Sollenberger Classic against Salpointe Catholic of Tucson at Bishop Gorman, breaking in a fresh set of sophomores expected to continue the program’s winning ways.
Sophomores Brian Roland at wide receiver and running backs Stephon Stowers and Calvin Tubbs lead a group of underclassmen with unlimited potential.
“We have some super-talented sophomore players that are going to be stepping onto the stage this year and making contributions,” Muraco said. “People will learn their names, just like Kai and Niko broke out. The question for me as coach is how will these young kids hold up in a big, pressure game because they haven’t had this experience before?”
But others have.
For as young as Liberty is, the Patriots have more than their share of proven players.
Two-way linemen Jarvis Polu (an Army commit) and Reno Tu’ufuli have combined to play in virtually every meaningful Liberty game in the past three seasons, including last year when they lost in the state championship game. Junior Noah Jefferson (6-foot-6, 245 pounds), a transfer from Desert Oasis, is already being heavily recruited and will be a force on both sides of the line.
Senior Jozef Misaalefua (6-foot-3, 275 pounds) at offensive tackle will make a difference in the rushing and passing attacks, senior linebacker Samson Monterde had 56 tackles last year and senior Tyler Parvin at running back could flourish as part of the regular rotation. Also, Ethan Tuilagi will get carries at running back and be a leader in the defensive secondary.
“This is the most athletically gifted group of kids we’ve had,” Muraco said.
Senior Tyler Newman will be the starting quarterback, following in the footsteps of Nacua. But Muraco is quick to point out two important stats — Newman’s 814 passing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013 were more than Nacua, who did most of his damage on the ground.
With Newman under center, and with a more athletic group of skilled-position players, the Liberty offense will include more pass plays.
“It’s looking real good out there,” Newman said. “Yes, there is pressure. But I got a lot of experience last year that’s going to help me out.”
The Sollenberger game is the first of three against out-of-state competition. The other two games are against nationally ranked opponents: Aug. 30 against Centennial of Corona, Calif., and Sept. 20 against defending Arizona champ Hamilton High. Muraco is following the lead set by Gorman of playing a challenging preseason schedule in preparation for local games.
“When you look at Bishop Gorman, they are the standard,” Muraco said. “We looked at that program and asked ourselves what we needed to do to beat them.”
Liberty has posted an 11-2 record in each of the past three seasons, losing its season opener each year, then not losing again until being knocked out of the playoffs. Muraco is hoping to reverse that trend — at the beginning and end of the season.