Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Nov. 29, 2013 | 2 a.m.
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Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer assess the state of the Bishop Gorman vs. Palo Verde rivalry. With the Gaels outscoring the Panthers by 100 points combined in the last four meetings, is the game as relevant as it once was? Will Palo Verde keep it close? Listen for that discussion as well as a breakdown of Liberty's trip to Reed and a shoutout to Division 1A State Champion Faith Lutheran.
Gone are the days when the Liberty High football team’s success and failure is dictated by the performances of their all-state quarterback and running back.
While Kai Nacua and Niko Kapeli were two of the best players in Liberty history, they couldn’t do it alone in the final few games of the season.
These Liberty Patriots don’t have that problem. These Liberty Patriots have the offensive weapons to be considered legitimate contenders for the state championship.
When they take the field Saturday against Northern Region champ Reed High in the state semifinals at Bishop Manogue in Reno, there is no telling who will get the ball first in the Patriots’ attack. Or if they will pass or run.
“Our quarterback has a lot of options,” said Deseon McQuaig, Liberty’s leading receiver with 969 yards and 13 touchdowns. “It’s hard for defenses to pick up. It makes it easy for us to move the ball.”
A total of 11 Liberty players have caught touchdowns this season, and five receive regular carries at running back. Coach Rich Muraco has been liberal in his play-calling, changing formations and personnel to keep defenses off balance.
When Green Valley assigned their best defensive back to shadow McQuaig last week in the Sunrise Region championship game, the Patriots went to another option. Drew Hladek had two touchdown catches and more than 100 receiving yards, and two different rushers had fourth-quarter touchdown runs to secure the victory.
“It definitely makes it harder for defenses to scheme against us,” Muraco said. “I have confidence that if a team decides to double-team Deseon, like when Green Valley put their best guy on him, then Drew will have a big game. If Reed decides to double Drew, Deseon will have a big game.”
Liberty has scored 527 points in 13 games; Reed (11-1) has surrendered 300 points in 12 games, including 85 in its past two playoff games. That could give Liberty quarterback Tyler Newman, who has passed for a school-record 3,654 yards and 41 touchdowns, an edge.
In last year’s state semifinals, Newman played a few snaps at quarterback when Muraco moved Nacua to wide receiver. Newman wound up completing 4 of 6 passes for a touchdown, helping Liberty advance to the state championship game.
It was a sign of things to come for the new-look Liberty offense. Newman, with confidence under center from last season’s success, has led a Patriots team of relative newcomers back to the semifinals.
“We’ve really opened the playbook this year. We have a lot of playmakers,” Newman said. “We can move the ball on the ground and through the air. I trust everybody.”
This is Liberty’s fourth straight state semifinal appearance but their first without Nacua and Kapeli leading the way. Last year, Liberty finally broke through in advancing to the state championship game, where it lost to four-time defending state champion Bishop Gorman.
“No matter what (Reed) does defensively, we’ll adjust to it. We’ll get used to it,” McQuaig said.
Liberty already secured a minor victory before kickoff — the forecast for Saturday afternoon in Reno is in the low 50s with clear conditions.
Las Vegas-area teams typically struggle playing in Reno because of travel and late-November cold weather. When Liberty played in the state semifinals in 2010 in Reno, it snowed so hard it took the Patriots out of their game. They missed a short field goal because the conditions were so poor the holder couldn’t control the snap, then went for a 2-point conversion instead of an extra point after scoring because of fears of another mishap in getting the kick off.
They wound up losing by one point.
“The weather was the biggest concern, but seeing the forecast is very nice, it’s a big relief off my shoulders,” Muraco said. “If it’s 30 degrees and snowing, it’s hard to get ready for that because most of the kids haven’t seen snow.”