Stephen R. Sylvanie / Special to the Sun
Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012 | 7:27 p.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer expected Bishop Gorman and Liberty to be in this position, one game away from the state championship on Thanksgiving weekend. Coronado comes as the season's surprise. Brewer and Keefer discuss whether the Cougars can take it a step further and everything else concerning the state semifinals.
- Gorman weathers valiant effort from Reed, advances to face Liberty in state title game
- State or bust: Liberty hopes the third time is a charm in state semifinals
- High School Football Picks: State semifinals
- Wasted opportunities early haunt Moapa Valley in state championship loss
- Gorman’s defense answers call, gives Gaels fourth straight Sunset crown
- High school football section
Kai Nacua easily could have been rattled.
The Liberty High quarterback fumbled on the first play of Saturday’s Sunrise Regional championship game against visiting Coronado, committing a turnover that was scooped up by a Coronado defender and returned for a 13-yard touchdown.
Just eight seconds into the game and the two-time defending region champion Patriots trailed by a touchdown.
But, with Nacua guiding the offense, the deficit lasted just a few minutes.
Nacua backed up claims that he’s one of the state’s best players, accounting for seven touchdowns and single-handedly taking the game over in a 59-20 Liberty win.
It’s the Patriots’ third straight Sunrise championship, and with this year’s Sunrise title game doubling as the state semifinals, Liberty advances to next week’s state championship game to face Bishop Gorman.
In the first quarter alone, Nacua passed, rushed and caught a touchdown. He helped the Patriots score 35 unanswered points in about 18 minutes, punching their ticket to the state finals for the first time in school history. The school opened in 2003 and they’ve lost over Thanksgiving weekend in the state semifinals the past two years.
“We are all like brothers out here and we share the same goal,” Nacua said. “That’s to accomplish what we just did by getting to state.”
Liberty coach Rich Muraco has frequently said Nacua was been the best player on the field every week this season. He also doesn’t hesitate when calling him the best player in the state.
Saturday was a good indication.
The BYU-committed Nacua connected with Tevis Labrador for a 72-yard touchdown to open the Liberty scoring. He added a 19-yard touchdown run at the 6:57 mark of the first and closed the quarter by catching a 21-yard fade from Tyler Newman for a quick 21 points.
“I really believe (he’s the best). I’m not trying to say it to hype him up or anything,” Muraco said. “Every single week, every single game, he is the best player on the field. He wins games for us. He takes over games and is such a match-up problem.
“Having him with Niko (Niko, the school’s all-time leading rusher) presents a lot of match-up problems. Do you key on Niko, or do you key on Kai?,” he continued.
His most impressive play came on Liberty’s fourth touchdown early in the second quarter. He caught a short screen from Newman, then broke numerous tackles in outracing the Coronado defense for a 63-yard score.
On Liberty’s next possession, Nacua connected with tight end Josef Misaalefua for a 8 yard touchdown. Misaalefua also caught a short touchdown pass from Newman — who had three touchdown passes and a touchdown reception — late in the third quarter.
When Nacua connected with Jay Mitchell for a 15-yard scoring strike for a 49-13 Liberty lead midway through the third quarter, it marked the seventh touchdown he was part of — one rushing, two receiving, and four passing.
Not bad after starting the game with a turnover.
“Stuff happens in football,” Nacua said. “I knew we were going to get the ball right back. We just had to play our game and get those points back.”
Duplicating the effort next week against Bishop Gorman High, which beat Reed 49-24 in the other state semifinal, will be easier said than done.
Gorman is the three-time defending state champions and haven’t lost to a local foe since the 2008 postseason. And, in a true sign of Gorman’s domination, most of the games haven’t been close.
One of the exceptions came in last year’s state semifinals against Liberty. Liberty twice had touchdown leads in the first half, and only trailed by one point midway through the third quarter, before Gorman closed strong in a 56-34 victory.
Hanging tough was a moral victory for the Patriots. This year, they want the real thing.
During the celebration, Muraco gathered the players — and several fans who made their way down to the field — for his postgame speech. His message was simple: If you are afraid of Bishop Gorman, don’t bother showing up next week, he told the group. To beat Gorman, you have to believe you can do just that, he said.
Needless to say, it got the players fired up. More than any other Nevada team that’s faced Gorman, you can easily argue Liberty has the most confidence they can be successful.
“The whole offseason we talked about Bishop Gorman,” Muraco said. “Everything we did was getting to state and beating them. All of the lifts, all of the motivational speeches were (about beating) Gorman. I really think the kids believe we can beat them.”
When Gorman fell behind early against Reed in today’s other state semifinals, not too many players or coaches from Liberty were rejoicing. The general consensus is Gorman is the only team they want to play for the state championship.
“Selfishly speaking, I would be really mad if someone else beat Gorman before we do,” Muraco said. “I want to be the local team that knocks them down. If you go in with the mind set of just trying to survive or not being embarrassed, then you aren’t going to beat them. You have to go in wanting to win.”