Tuesday, May 22, 2012 | 2 a.m.
When the Liberty High football team hung tough with power Bishop Gorman for nearly three quarters in last year’s state semifinals, the Patriots immediately confirmed their status as one of the state’s top programs.
They have won back-to-back Sunrise Regional titles and are riding a 16-game winning streak in league games — accomplishments that are nice, but not as significant as giving nationally ranked and three-time defending state champion Gorman a stiff test. Liberty twice had a touchdown lead in the first half and trailed by one point midway through the third quarter before Gorman scored 28 unanswered points to secure the win, 56-34.
Come next fall, staying at the top will be easier said than done for Liberty. Take one look at the schedule, which was finalized in late April, and you can easily argue Liberty will have its hands full.
The Patriots open Aug. 31 against Crespi High of Encino, Calif., in a rare game for a Las Vegas-area public school against a respected California program. Two weeks later, on Sept. 13, Liberty will host Palo Verde in easily the most significant nonleague game featuring local teams on the schedule. Palo Verde has just four defeats in the past three years — three to Gorman — and is 59-6 since 2007.
“We are to the point where we don’t have to prove ourselves anymore,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “We proved ourselves by putting up more points on Gorman than any local team. I’m glad we are to the point where we get tough games. Obviously, that will keep our program in the spotlight. We are excited to take on Palo. They are a perennial power.”
With the spring sports season finishing last weekend, the attention has shifted to the football season. Several schools are running their spring football practices each afternoon. At Liberty, which returns 2,300-yard rusher Niko Kapeli and quarterback Kai Nacua, the general consensus is another deep playoff run is more than obtainable.
The tough schedule will have them more than ready come the end of the season in November. Last year, Liberty dropped its opener to Arbor View — a top-5 local team — but went undefeated before falling to Gorman in the semifinals.
“The better teams you play, especially early in the year, the better prepared you’ll be at the end of year,” Muraco said.
One game missing from the schedule is a contest against nearby rival Silverado, which had become one of the area's most heated rivalry games. The schools were put in different divisions in the realignment.
Rivalry games still on the slate:
Coaches at Chaparral High worried the annual Cleat Game against Eldorado wouldn’t be scheduled in the fall with the Cowboys moving to the newly formed Division II and Eldorado staying in the top division. However, Clark County School District officials continued all significant rivalry games as promised in realignment, scheduling Eldorado at Chaparral on Sept. 14. The rivalry dates back to the 1970s and used to be one of the marquee games of the season.
In other rivalry games, the Victory Bell game between host Silverado and Foothill is Sept. 14, the Henderson Bowl between host Basic and Green Valley is Sept. 28, the Bone Game between host Las Vegas High and Rancho is Oct. 5, and the Battle for Boulder Highway between host Foothill and Basic is Oct. 11. Basic, however, won't continue the "Jug Game" rivalry with Boulder City in a realignment casualty.
Basic and Green Valley, which had competed in the same league since Green Valley opened in 1991, are now in different leagues — Green Valley in the Northeast League of Division I and Basic in the Southeast — and weren’t guaranteed to play. It’s the same drill with Foothill, which stayed in the Southeast, and new Northeast member Silverado.
Realignment also forced Desert Oasis and neighboring Sierra Vista to different leagues in Division I. The Railroad Rivalry game between the schools, however, will continue Sept. 14 at Sierra Vista. The same holds true for Centennial and Shadow Ridge, which changed leagues in the top division and will play Sept. 14 at Shadow Ridge.
Also, Cheyenne of Division II will continue playing Cimarron-Memorial of the top division in the Duel in the Desert game, which is the season opener for both on Aug. 31. Both schools, which have been heated rivals since the 1990s, requested the rivalry stay on the schedule.
These games stand out:
• Palo Verde’s schedule is also full of difficult games. In addition to the contest against Liberty, the Panthers will be challenged Aug. 31 at rival Centennial. They needed a late-scoring drive to beat Centennial, 20-16, in last year’s Sunset Regional semifinals. The former league rivals kept each other on the schedule after being split by realignment.
• Palo Verde and Arbor View both stayed in the Northwest League and will continue their rivalry Oct. 25 in the regular season finale — it will likely be for the Northwest title. Also, on Sept. 21, Palo Verde hosts Canyon Springs, which is one of the Sunrise’s top teams. The Panthers’ season starts Aug. 18 at the Sollenberger Classic against Desert Vista High, Arizona’s defending large-school champion and a nationally ranked team.
• Cheyenne and Desert Pines open the season Aug. 23 on "Thursday Night Lights" (yes, they are back for a third season) in a battle of what will likely be the top teams in the new Division II.
• Legacy will be the first local team to get a crack at Bishop Gorman, opening play in the new Southwest League Sept. 28 against the three-time defending state champs. Centennial and Cimarron-Memorial are also part of the new Southwest, joining Bonanza and Desert Oasis at trying to top Gorman.
• Durango, with college-caliber running backs Marcus Williams and Arie McQuaig leading way, will be tested in non-league games Sept. 7 at home against Centennial and Sept. 14 at Basic.
• On Sept. 7, Desert Oasis hosts perennial Northeast power Las Vegas High and plays Sept. 21 at Foothill — a nice non-league slate for one of the valley’s up-and-coming teams.
• Gorman plays four out-of-state opponents, including a trip over Labor Day weekend to Hawaii for a game against Honolulu power St. Louis High. Here is more on Gorman’s schedule.