Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports reporters break down the long-awaited high school football state semifinal matchup between Bishop Gorman and Liberty. Are the Patriots ready to hang with the two-time defending state champions?
When the Liberty High School football team finishes practice each day, the players come together and break with a chant of: “Win state.”
It’s been that way since spring practice in March, and it’s a constant reminder that winning the championship is becoming more of a reality each week. Now in late November, the Patriots are two wins away from reaching that goal.
That involves dethroning the state’s unquestioned top team, Bishop Gorman, which has won the past two state titles and hasn’t lost to a local opponent since 2008.
The schools will meet at 1 p.m. Saturday at Rancho High School in the state semifinals.
“We believe we can do it,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “I know nobody else does, but the 50-plus players and coaches here do. A lot of teams, when they take the field against Gorman, they lose before the game has been played. When you tell (our kids) they can win state, it is not a pipe dream. We believe it.”
Gorman, which is ranked No. 5 nationally by Rivals.com and has outscored opponents 710-123 this year, has hardly been challenged by a local foe. Since Tony Sanchez took over the program in 2008, Gorman has outscored opponents 2,200-359 and recorded 18 shutouts. In Southwest Division games, the team has surrendered just 54 points in three years.
Several other top local programs have taken their stab at dethroning Gorman, but each has failed. And failed convincingly.
But by no means is Gorman overlooking a capable Liberty team.
“They are a big, strong and talented group,” Sanchez said. “They seem to get better as the season goes on.”
Liberty, which has won two Sunrise Region titles in a row, is getting its first crack at beating Gorman. The Patriots (11-1) have been the dominant force on the east side of the Las Vegas Valley, only losing in late August to Arbor View, 47-26. In comparison, Gorman has beaten Arbor View twice this fall — 56-7 and 56-20.
So, yes, the odds are stacked against Liberty. Just don’t expect the Liberty players to feel overmatched.
“By no means will there be NFL players playing against us,” Muraco said. “It will be 17- and 18-year-old kids just like us. Our kids are motivated to prove (everyone wrong).”
Stopping Gorman might be easier said than done. The Gaels are averaging 51 points per game this year and have been equally dangerous running and passing the football. They’ve posted a 2-1 record in games against nationally ranked opponents, gaining confidence for the crunch time of the playoffs.
In last week’s Sunset Regional championship game against Palo Verde, Gorman’s defense bent but didn’t break on the opening drive of the game, when Palo Verde brought the ball inside the Gaels’ 10-yard line. But Palo Verde didn’t score, and Gorman drove 97 yards on its first possession to record the game’s first touchdown.
The sequence can be credited to the experience of playing in big-time games earlier in the season, Sanchez said.
“There was no panic. Nobody worries about it,” he said of the Palo Verde game. “Nothing is going to rattle our kids’ cages, because they have been in every possible environment.”
Liberty’s ground-and-pound rushing attack has been the difference this year, with junior Niko Kapeli rushing for 2,232 yards and 28 touchdowns. But Muraco said Kapeli’s older brother, fullback Jordan Kapeli, also has been a key in the rushing attack.
Liberty traditionally starts slow — often trailing in the first half — before wearing teams out in the second half.
“Jordan Kapeli is a man among boys,” the coach said. “Early in the game when people say we are struggling, we aren’t struggling, we are wearing teams down. By the second, third and fourth quarter, kids aren’t going to want to get hit by him anymore.”
Gorman is also physical in the running game, with senior Shaquille Powell rushing for 4,800 yards and 77 touchdowns for his career. When the Gaels air it out, junior quarterback Anu Solomon has proven to be the state’s best, passing for 2,250 yards and 34 touchdowns this year.
Powell, Solomon, receiver Ryan Smith and half of Gorman’s offensive line have started virtually every game the past three years. But Liberty needs to account for more than Gorman’s top players in its game plan — the Gaels seemingly receive contributions from a long list of players each night.
“We put our kids in situations where they can flourish,” Sanchez said. “We really make sure we include all of our assets in our game plan, both offensively and defensively, and make sure they are ready to come through (on game day).”
The winner advances to next week’s state championship game in Reno, taking on the winner of the Northern Regional title game between Reed and Carson highs.