Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Sept. 14, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer bring all the ranting and raving any Southern Nevada high school football fan could ever want on the fourth episode of this year's podcast. Brewer further fuels his detractors at Centennial and predicts a lopsided victory in favor of Bishop Gorman. Does Keefer agree? Listen to find out.
If there were any doubts in the debate of Nevada’s best public high school football team, they were answered Thursday night by the Liberty Patriots in the final five minutes of their showdown with Palo Verde.
Liberty High’s 42-28 victory in a battle of perennial powers likely gives the Patriots the title of best public school team, especially considering the manner in which they won.
“Palo Verde has been probably the last seven or eight years the perennial public school power,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “I told the kids that we want that throne now. We want to be known as the best public school team.”
Liberty, using touchdowns by star senior running back Niko Kapeli on three straight touches of the ball in the second and third quarters, built a 27-7 lead and appeared on their way to the convincing win.
Then, Palo Verde showed why it's one of the state’s best.
The Panthers answered with three unanswered touchdowns in taking a 28-27 lead with five minutes to play. Ryan Beaulieu, the Panthers’ dynamic playmaker, started the rally with a 45-yard touchdown reception from Parker Rost in trimming the deficit to two touchdowns.
After a defensive stop, Beaulieu inched the Panthers even closer when he returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Beaulieu’s younger brother, Calvin Beaulieu, gave the Panthers the lead with 5:05 remaining on a 12-yard touchdown run.
It was a brief advantage.
Liberty drove about 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown, using a 19-yard run from Kai Nacua for the decisive points. Nacua, who plays all over the field in the Patriots’ offense, caught the 2-point conversion pass for a 35-28 lead.
Liberty’s defense did the rest in forcing a fumble and recording an interception from senior Jay Mitchell to seal the victory. Kapeli added his fourth touchdown on an 8-yard run following the fumble for good measure.
Kapeli, a four-year varsity performer, and Nacua, the Patriots’ third-year starting quarterback, have been teammates since middle school on the Island Warriors youth team. They called Thursday night’s win one of their most significant.
“It is our senior year. Niko and I talked before the game and said it is time to step up and accept the challenge,” said Nacua, who is verbally committed to BYU.
Liberty is the back-to-back Sunrise Region champions, while Palo Verde is a power in the Sunset Region. Both teams haven’t been able to get past private school Bishop Gorman the past three years.
For Liberty, disposing of Palo Verde was the next — and most important — step in its progression. Three years ago, when Nacua was starting his first game at quarterback, Liberty was mistake-prone in losing a close game at Palo Verde.
They were still mistake-prone at times Thursday, but overcame the setbacks in showing how far the program has come. Palo Verde’s first touchdown was aided by a two penalties, including a flag for too many players on the field when Palo Verde was punting to extend the drive.
“The nice thing for me as a coach is I know we didn’t play our best game,” Muraco said. “That is really encouraging because if we play our best game we will be pretty dangerous.”
Kapeli, a UNLV verbal commit, was unstoppable most of the night in rushing for 177 yards. He scored on an 85-yard dump off pass seconds before halftime to give the Patriots a 17-7 lead at the break. Palo Verde could have easily had the lead, but turned the ball over deep in Liberty territory a few plays before Kapeli raced to the end zone.
In the second half, on his next touch of the ball, Kapeli had a scoring run of 63 yards.
“He was an absolute beast in the weight room in the offseason,” Muraco said. “He was our strongest kid on the team. So, when your running back is the strongest kid on the team and he outlifts all your linemen, you either have a real bad team or a real special kid at running back. We have a special running back.”
Ryan Beaulieu kept things interesting for Palo Verde with three touchdowns, opening the scoring by catching a 26-yard pass from Rost for a touchdown. He also had a touchdown called back on a punt return for a roughing the punter penalty.
Kapeli scored on Liberty’s next play. It was the fitting end to a back-and-forth game that lived up to its billing as the best regular season game of the year.
“We just had to stay strong and stay positive, and know what our abilities are,” Kapeli said. “I give it up to Palo for fighting through the game. They are just a wonderful team to play against.”