Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019 | 8:15 p.m.
The Liberty High football program’s credentials were already solid.
The Patriots have been ranked in the top-100 nationally for parts of the past three years, including in 2016 when they broke into the top-20 after winning a road game in Texas. They’ve sent numerous players onto college, and one to the NFL.
They had the state’s all-time leading passer. They’ve won so many division and regional titles it’s tough to keep count. And, of course, Liberty three weeks ended Bishop Gorman’s state championship streak at 10 consecutive titles with an overtime win.
Yet, the Patriots still needed one last accomplishment to reaffirm their greatness. You, after all, can’t call yourself a football power unless there’s some jewelry on your finger to support the claim.
That final accomplishment came on Saturday with a 50-7 victory against Centennial at Sam Boyd Stadium for the program’s first state championship. It was a convincing win fitting of the state’s best team, validating the Patriots’ program as elite.
“I’m speechless right now,” senior Alofaletauia Maluia said. “Look at the score. We did it. Our boys have been working for this day in and day out. It paid off. We built a legacy that needed to be finished.”
Liberty has been on the other side of the state game before, losing three times since 2012 — each to Gorman, and each in blowout fashion. When they fell 84-8 in 2016, the same year they were ranked in the top-20, some questioned if Liberty would ever get it done. Those questions loomed this season when Liberty lost five games against national opponents to open the season. Liberty coach Rich Muraco also heard those whispers, especially those who said he needed to make changes to his staff.
But Muraco wouldn’t budge. Some of the same coaches who were by his side in 2010 when they made the playoffs for the initial time are still his closest confidants.
“We had a lot of haters out there who didn’t believe in the coaching staff over the years and said we couldn’t get over the big win,” Muraco said. “I am so happy for those guys. So, yes, this absolutely validates (us).”
The season, regardless of what happened against Centennial, was arguably already a success. Beating Gorman was that important. Muraco received more than 300 text messages in the hours after the game from supporters and stayed up until 4 a.m. responding to congratulatory messages on social media.
But along the way that night, he flipped the page to the next two weeks. They had to travel to Reno — a place where Las Vegas teams always struggle, and where Liberty twice had lost before in the state semifinals. Past Liberty teams would have probably lost last week at Bishop Manogue. This Liberty team is was different.
“We ran through our schedule, we fought together, we cried together, we bled together,” junior Moliki Matavao said. “This was the team. I knew it was since the beginning of the season, especially after how we overcame that adversity of the 0-5 start.”
They continued the strong play on Saturday against Centennial.
On the third play, just 50 seconds into the game, Daniel Britt connected with Corey Hebert for a 48-yard scoring strike to give Liberty the lead for good. On the ensuing possession, Liberty’s Donte Bowers stepped in front of a pass for an interception, the first of four Centennial turnovers.
Centennial quarterback Colton Tenney entered with three interceptions on the season. He threw three against the Patriots, who continued their domination against local teams. In seven games against Las Vegas opponents, only Gorman scored more than 10 points.
“Our mantra coming into to today was we are the better team, and we are going to come out and show everybody,” Muraco said.
Liberty could very well be back hoisting trophy again next season, especially with the skilled-position players who return. Daniel Britt, who completed nearly 80% of his passes on the season with just one interception, will back — and with a full offseason of taking first-team reps.
Matavao, one of the top tight end recruits in the nation, also returns. The senior class will include four-year starter Zyrus Fiaseu, who rushed for 148 yards and two touchdowns against Centennial, including a 65-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
“Once we got into the playoffs, we had one goal: to win state,” said sophomore wide receiver Germie Bernard, who has scholarship offers from the likes of Utah and Washington. “We made a statement today.”
While this was the first Liberty team to win a championship, players will quickly say they don’t deserve all the credit. If it weren’t for those teams whose season ended short of a championship over the past decade, the current team wouldn’t have been in the position to be the ones to validate the Patriots’ greatness.
Muraco is the ring leader of a community unlike any other in Las Vegas high school football. It’s one with heavy influence from Polynesian families, a long line of brothers and cousins who have worn the red, white and blue with dreams of bringing home that championship trophy.
It finally happened in 2019. The Patriots’ rise to prominence is complete.
“They kids took care of business. They didn’t let anyone steal their moment,” Muraco said.
Centennial’s lone points came on an 80-yard touchdown run from Jordan Smith, which trimmed the deficit to 14-7 in the second quarter. However, Liberty needed three plays to score on its ensuing drive, using a scoring run from Edward Gastelum.
It was the kind of night from Centennial, who threw interceptions on the initial play of the first and second half. But, by no means, were the Bulldogs hanging their heads, especially considering they were a one-win team two seasons ago. Who knows? This could be like 2012 for Liberty, when it lost in the championship game for the first time on the way to becoming a power.
“Nobody picked us to be here,” Centennial coach Dustin Forshee said. “It was a group of kids up to the challenge to prove people wrong. We came up one game short.”