Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019 | 1:08 a.m.
Ray Brewer and Case Keefer discuss the news, and the prior upset, that shook the local high school football world before getting into picks for the Desert Region championship game and Mountain Region semifinals.
Toa Tai’s first memory of the Liberty High School football program happened when he was just 6. Older brother Sam Tai was a star for the Patriots, and Toa would always follow him to practice.
On game days, Toa and other elementary-school-age children would play on the back field, many waiting for their time to be under the Friday night lights. They learned at an early age that one opponent had more importance than the rest: Bishop Gorman.
The Gorman dynasty of three mythical national championships, a 55-game winning streak and 10-straight state championships seemed to always go through Liberty — and oftentimes with little resistance. Patriots coach Rich Muraco repeatedly promised that Liberty would eventually dethrone Gorman and modeled his program after the national power.
Gorman plays a who’s who of national opponents in the preseason to prepare for local play. So would Liberty, even if it meant losing all five games this season.
Gorman beat a nationally ranked opponent on the road in Texas. Ditto for the Patriots.
Gorman is a program supported by a Nike apparel deal. Liberty officials coordinated with Adidas.
Gorman sends players to major Division I schools, including nine All-Americans and a national player of the year. Liberty has also became a landing spot for recruiters.
Yet despite closing the gap, the results remained the same, including the 2016 state championship game when Gorman beat Liberty by 76 points — a result that could have squashed Muraco’s belief. It didn’t.
Liberty, finally, accomplished the unthinkable.
The Patriots erased a 14-point halftime deficit Friday against visiting Gorman in the Desert Regional championship game, using Zyrus Fiaseu’s 6-yard touchdown run in overtime to put the finishing touches on a 30-24 victory so desperately sought after by every other school in the Las Vegas area. But, as Muraco long predicted, his Patriots would be the ones to beat Gorman.
“Everything we have done was to beat Bishop Gorman,” he said. “There is a couple of times where we played them and I thought we had a really good chance to give them a good game and we didn’t. I am so proud of this team for believing and not being down.”
The Patriots’ journey to Las Vegas prep football royalty partially starts with families such as the Tais, who about 10 years ago arrived at Liberty to pump new life into the program. Liberty, which opened in 2003, was mostly a bottom-feeder program with no identity.
But it soon became a landing spot for many of Polynesian descent, with brothers and cousins populating the roster. Toa Tai followed brothers Sam and Albert. Many others followed in the footsteps of their siblings — such as Fiaseu, whose brother, Austin, now plays at UNLV. This year’s team alone has four sets of siblings.
“We wanted to finish the legacy that my brother and those other guys started 10 years ago,” Toa Tai said. “Can you believe that? It’s been 10 long years.”
Fiaseu’s touchdown, which gave Liberty its first lead of the game, set off a celebration years in the making. Players, coaches and fans stormed the field rejoicing, many in tears of joy for the accomplishment. This game was bigger than winning the state championship, for which Liberty is still two wins away from.
This win was for every Liberty player whose season ended against Gorman. This win was for every team in Las Vegas who fell short against the Gaels, often by the mercy rule of a running clock. Gorman had not lost to a Nevada opponent since Palo Verde in the 2008 regional finals. For the first time since Reno's McQueen in 2008, a non-Gorman school will be the large-school state champions.
In the madness of the celebration, one of Liberty’s assistant coaches brought his cellphone to Muraco. A former player was on FaceTime and eager to send his congratulations. That speaks volumes to the type of community Muraco has built in 11 seasons at the helm of the program.
“We had faith that if we kept developing our kids and kept plugging along that this day would come,” Muraco said.
The win would not have been possible without junior quarterback Daniel Britt, who became the Liberty starter in the first month of the season and has been nothing short of brilliant in completing 105 of 133 passes for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns this season with just one interception.
Britt is slightly undersized at 5-foot-10, 180-pounds, but his dual-threat ability was the difference against Gorman. He threw a pair of seemingly perfect passes on a third-quarter scoring drive, where if he doesn’t connect with Moliki Matavao on a fourth-down play or with Germie Bernard a few plays later for a touchdown, Gorman likely wins by double digits.
Britt also raced in for a rushing touchdown on a third-down play with three minutes remaining to even the game at 24 and force overtime. Earlier on the drive, he completed a fourth down pass to Fiaseu for a fresh set of down — another play where if Liberty didn't covert the outcome would have been different.
The Liberty defense was equally strong, especially in the second half. Gorman failed to get a first down on consecutive third-quarter possessions, and with each stop the Liberty sideline became more animated. Yes, players and coaches said they long believed a victory against Gorman was realistic. Those stops certainly reaffirmed the feeling .
“We had a chip on our shoulder. Nobody believed in us,” said Alofaletauia Maluia, Liberty’s senior defensive end and captain. “This is my senior year — I knew I had to do something about that.”
Tears were flowing down Maluia’s face as he hugged anyone and everyone within arm’s reach. He was a freshman on the 2016 team that lost 84-8 in the state championship game, but never stopped working toward the program’s central goal of dethroning the champs. He saw firsthand the dedication teammates put into offseason training, often coming to campus on their own to train on off days.
“Our guys worked hard every single day for this,” Maluia said. “Gorman was in the way of our accomplishments. Now, we have to finish what we started.”
There are still two games left to win for the program’s first state championship. For as satisfying as beating Gorman is, losing next week in the state semifinals in Reno would surely put a damper on the achievement.
If beating Gorman was the first hurdle to overcome in the growth of the Liberty program, winning in Reno is the second. The Patriots are 0-2 in the state semifinals in Reno, and each defeat was close.
“Man, you beat Bishop Gorman, you still have to win two more games,” Muraco said. “It’s going to be hard — traveling to Reno is never easy.”