Wednesday, May 30, 2012 | 2:29 p.m.
When Niko Kapeli joined the Liberty High School football team as a freshman in 2009, the Patriots program had never made the playoffs in its seven-year history and was one of Southern Nevada's worst teams.
Three years later, Liberty is a perennial Sunrise Region power — a fact that has a lot to do with the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Kapeli. The running back is the school’s all-time leading rusher with one year left in his career, leading Liberty to consecutive Sunrise Regional crowns and 16 straight league wins.
He hopes to have a similar impact at UNLV.
Kapeli verbally committed to UNLV on Wednesday, becoming the Rebels’ first verbal commitment for the class of 2013. Kapeli was also recruited by Utah, New Mexico and Northern Arizona, but committed to the hometown Rebels so his family could watch him play. It doesn't hurt that his brother, fullback Jordan Kapeli, will be a freshman walk-on at UNLV in the fall.
Third-year UNLV coach Bobby Hauck has long stressed the importance of recruiting locals — a fact he's backed up on signing day each February. The commitment of Kapeli, who rushed for 2,389 yards and 29 touchdowns last fall and is considered one of Las Vegas' top players for the class of 2013, is a major step in the right direction. Last year, safety/linebacker Marc Philippi and Ron Scoggins Jr. from state champion Bishop Gorman School, and Basic High School offensive lineman J’Ondray Sanders made up a strong local contingent.
The players who signed last year each stressed the importance of living our their college football dreams at home. Kapeli echoed those comments.
"I always liked UNLV and wanted to play there. It is close and my brother is going there," Kapeli said.
While UNLV was Kapeli's only scholarship offer, Liberty coach Rich Muraco said other schools were close to offering. Some programs wanted him to attend their summer camp, which Muraco advised the Kapeli family would be a waste of time and resources since UNLV was their clear No. 1 choice.
“I’m excited to see him go to UNLV and help turn their program around,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “The only way UNLV is going to get better is to have the best local kids stay home. And that’s Niko.”
Kapeli has 4,298 career rushing yards and 43 touchdowns, proving his ability last year in the state semifinals against Bishop Gorman when he rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown, and caught three passes for 80 yards and another score. Still, there were questions about his transition to the next level because of his height. "That motivates me more to push and prove them wrong, and show I'm a Division-I player," he says of the criticism."