Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011 | 5:54 p.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?
The Bishop Gorman High football team is one win away from a third consecutive state title. And, with an offense that seemingly can score on every play, the Gaels will be tough to beat.
Shaquille Powell rushed for five touchdowns and 270 yards Saturday, and the Gaels fought off a valiant effort from Liberty in a 56-34 victory at Rancho in the state semifinals. Gorman advances to next week’s state championship game in Reno against Northern Nevada’s Reed High.
Gorman twice overcame seven-point deficits in the first half and eventually pulled away in the second half, staying unbeaten against local competition since 2008.
No matter how many yards or points Liberty was able to produce, it couldn’t stop Powell and Gorman’s offense.
“We knew that if it turned into a shootout, that was kind of in our favor,” Gorman coach Tony Sanchez said.
The initial three minutes of the game perfectly summarized that philosophy. Liberty recovered an onside kick to take the first possession of the game and scored two plays later on a 46-yard touchdown run from Niko Kapeli.
The lead didn’t last long.
Gorman needed just four plays to even the game, using an 11-yard touchdown run from Powell to tie the score at 7-all with 9:52 remaining in the first quarter.
But Liberty, unlike most teams that face Gorman, didn’t back down. The Patriots trailed 28-27 midway through the third quarter before Gorman scored 28 unanswered points to secure the win.
Powell had two touchdowns in the outburst and set up another by muscling his way 41 yards to the Liberty 2-yard line. Fullback Tajon Allen scored on the next play.
The five touchdowns gave Powell 82 for his three-year career, while his monster day helped him surpass 2,000 rushing yards for the season.
“Shaquille Powell is unbelievable. We couldn’t tackle him,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said.
Liberty’s Kapeli was equally as tough to bring down. He rushed for 150 yards — something running backs from nationally ranked programs such as Servite (Calif.) and Armwood (Fla.) couldn’t do against Gorman — and also scored late in the fourth quarter on a 56-yard screen pass from Kai Nacua.
Nacua had the play of the day when he was stopped on a quarterback keeper, but pitched the ball on the option to a trailing Jeremy Lagasca for a 15-yard touchdown and 14-7 lead.
Trading touchdowns and hard hits with Gorman (the nation’s fifth-ranked team) helps validate the Liberty program. Liberty has won two Sunrise titles in a row, but typically wasn’t mentioned alongside Palo Verde and Arbor View as the state’s next best teams behind Gorman.
The Patriots left little doubt Saturday. Although they didn’t win on the scoreboard, the program earned some major respect.
“We wanted to come out and show them that we weren’t afraid of them,” Muraco said. “We wanted to, like I said, basically go right at them and be physical. We thought that would be the ticket to get the win. Unfortunately, we just didn’t hold up our end of the bargain defensively.”
Holding up defensively against Gorman is easier said than done.
Gorman quarterback Anu Solomon complemented Powell in the running game by passing for 209 yards and a pair of touchdowns, scoring strikes to Jamir Tillman and Terrance Chambers.
As the Gorman lead grew, Liberty was forced to desert its run-first mentality on offense, which led to a pair of second-half interceptions for Gorman.
Ben Guida returned his interception to the Liberty 8-yard line and Powell scored on the next play to extend the lead to 42-27 with 4:15 to play in the third quarter. Gorman would lead by more than two touchdowns the rest of the day.
“Our defense did a great job of settling down,” Sanchez said.
Gorman will play Reed for the second time in three years. In 2009, the Gaels led 35-0 after the first quarter against host Reed in an easy 62-21 win.