Las Vegas Sun

September 17, 2019

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high school football:

Prep football season produced compelling stories in Las Vegas. Here are a few

IMG Academy Defeats Liberty 35 0

Wade Vandervort

Liberty High’s Jared Tufele (27) performs a haka dance with his teammates before their home game against IMG Academy, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018.

Prep Sports Now

Turkey bowls

Three local teams are lucky enough to play after Thanksgiving this year. Ray Brewer and Case Keefer discuss all three — Arbor View, Liberty and Bishop Gorman — and how they can play even deeper into the calendar.

It is a privilege to play on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That’s long been the philosophy for Las Vegas-area high school football programs. A spot in this weekend’s state semifinals comes with the attention fitting for a season’s worth of hard work. The crowds get larger for this round of games, even drawing players from other schools whose seasons have ended and are surely envious that they aren’t the ones pursuing a state championship. The season has featured upsets, close finishes, memorable plays and more. And we’re just getting started, because the two semifinal games—Arbor View at Reno’s Bishop Manogue, and Liberty at Bishop Gorman—are expected to be closely contested. Our photographers were along for the ride this season to document some of the moments that make Friday nights so meaningful. Forget the wins and losses; it’s all about playing in front of family and friends.

Liberty's war dance

At Liberty, the pregame haka and winning games go hand in hand. The Patriots started performing haka (pictured above), a traditional war dance meant to intimidate the opposition, about 10 seasons ago when it received an influx of players of Polynesian decent. Those players have helped Liberty win eight consecutive regional championships. “To me the haka is about family,” Liberty lineman Jeremiah Taiese said. “Most of us here were raised together, and if you weren’t, we’re welcoming you to the family.” Liberty hosted the Polynesian Classic this fall, facing top-ranked IMG Academy of Florida in one of the event’s three games, while taking part in a celebration of the culture.

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A little girl watches football players from Democracy Prep Academy practice at Kianga Isoke Palacio Park, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Practice is conducted at the nearby park because the school doesn't have its own field.

Democracy prep will practice anytime, anywhere

The Democracy Prep football team’s practices were often a community event—and not by design. The public charter school on West Lake Mead Boulevard at J Street doesn’t have a field. So practices take place at nearby Doolittle Community Center, where field space is shared with youth teams and neighborhood children. The Blue Knights won three games, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker. “We get the most out of our situation,” coach Keith Jones said.

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Students paint a B on the side a mountain near the school.

Basic ‘B’ painting

A teacher yells, “Ready, set, go.” That’s when hundreds of students in the Basic High senior class renew an annual homecoming tradition, painting the “B” on a nearby mountain overlooking the school’s stadium. Basic is the lone Southern Nevada school with its initial on a mountain. The painting began in 1974. The event takes about two hours because students also do community service prior to the painting by picking up trash, rearranging rocks and grooming bushes. It’s part of an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management, which allows the school to continue with its painting project. Officials say it is a privilege to participate. They run grade checks before the event and prohibit students with failing grades from participating.

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Cheyenne coach Patrick Ward has a post game prayer with his players after they are defeated by Moapa Valley 21-6, Friday, Sep. 14, 2018.

Play hard, study harder at Cheyenne

Patrick Ward didn’t care that he was no longer in his native West Texas. There was a football game to coach and kids to mentor, meaning the 65-year-old with more than three decades of experience was in his element. “It’s not where the train starts,” the charismatic coach with a Texas twang says, “I only care where it stops. Forget about football. It’s all about the grades. My biggest mission is to make sure these kids stay eligible.” His mission was also to beat 3A power Moapa Valley, knowing a victory against the Overton school would pave the way to winning a state championship. Cheyenne wound up losing twice to Moapa Valley—both times on the road, including in the state quarterfinals. But don’t chalk the season up as a failure. Cheyenne won a playoff game for the first time since 2009, and posted one of the area’s most memorable finishes along the way. Trailing Del Sol by 16 points with eight minutes remaining, the Desert Shields rallied for three touchdowns and scored the game-winning points on the final play when Ray Brown caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Josh Rose. “You can’t count my kids out anymore,” Ward said.

Western brought the fighting spirit

Don’t judge the Western season by its 0-9 record or its 461-32 margin of defeat. What’s important is that the Warriors participated with such pride that opposing coaches raved about their effort. The compliments were unexpected for a team with only one victory since 2010. “Hats off to those kids,” Del Sol coach Mike Valenzuela said after his team beat Western 58-0. “Really impressed with their fight.” There were some bright spots, namely the final game of the season, in which Western surrendered just one second-half touchdown in a 35-6 loss to Democracy Prep. Also, running back Hahsaun Blackburn had an 80-yard touchdown run in one game and nearly 300 yards on the season.

Eldorado's passionate tunes

High school football Friday nights are sacred in many towns. And they’re about more than football. Sure, the action on the field is what brings most people to high schools across America. But there are also performances from cheerleaders, dance teams and the band under those Friday night lights. The goal is simple: participation. Take the Foothill at Eldorado game this season. Foothill’s band is considered one of the best in Nevada, so impressive it has performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Rose Bowl Parade and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland. But on this night, Eldorado’s much-smaller band—about 20 members total—played with the same passion and purpose. It’s all about school spirit and performing in front of family and friends.

For Centennial, it was about honoring life

There were days when practices for the Centennial High football team featured long talks between players and coaches and little planning for the next game. And then two players died over spring break in separate incidents, and celebrating those athletes’ lives became the top priority for their teammates. Dylan Mack, who played in the 2017 season, died with three other students in California when the car they were in was rear-ended by a drunk driver. Matt Touma took his own life. “We’ve talked a lot about character,” coach Dustin Forshee said. “Overcoming adversity doesn’t come easy. Things in life don’t come easy.” Centennial finished with a 1-7 record in 2017 and appeared headed for another loss in its season opener. But it scored the winning touchdown with 44 seconds remaining against Sierra Vista when defender Nate Conger ripped the ball from the opposing running back and raced for the winning points. Every step of the way, the Bulldogs have honored their fallen teammates. During pregame warm-ups, they wore shirts with Touma’s name. They also invited his family to participate in senior night festivities before the final home game.

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Desert Pines football coach David Hill addresses his players.

Desert Pines coach lights the way

David Hill was raised by a single mother. She gave birth to him when she was 14, and his three siblings before she was 21. His father was gunned down outside the Stratosphere when Hill was just 2. He loved football and dreamed about playing in college, knowing a degree would translate into a better life. There was one problem: He didn’t know how to coordinate with college coaches. Hill, who eventually played for the University of Arizona, returned to Las Vegas for a teaching and coaching job at Desert Pines. And in his free time, he takes Las Vegas recruits on the sort of college trips he so desperately wanted to take in his youth. On one trip, the group traveled to Arizona in three vans. On another, the students flew to Atlanta to visit powerhouse schools like Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. Many of the athletes now have multiple scholarship offers, and they all rave about Hill paving the way. “I don’t want any recognition,” Hill said. “We have a lot of talent here in Las Vegas. It’s about getting the kids exposure.”

Bengals break barriers

Carrie Walters walked toward the bench a few yards behind the sideline and tapped the helmet of one of the Bonanza High football players. The Bengals were closing in on a victory against Valley in the initial game of the season, and Walters, a Bengals assistant coach, wanted to congratulate one of her players. Having a female assistant coach in a male-dominated sport doesn’t seem strange to Bonanza players. Walters, in her third season, quickly earned their respect. “It wasn’t an issue. And by the end of the season they were all gung-ho to have me as coach,” Walters said last year. She previously served as captain of the Las Vegas Showgirlz, an all-women adult tackle team coached by Bonanza head coach Dion Lee. Lee proudly calls Walters a trusted aide who knows football, and knows how to teach the game.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.