When Liberty lost in the state semifinals to Bishop Gorman in 2011, Patriots football coach Rich Muraco decided the best way to compete with the private school powerhouse was to beef up his team’s nonleague schedule.
So the Patriots traveled to Southern California for their opener last season, suffering a 14-point loss to a Crespi team that finished 8-2.
This year, Liberty is taking another step up in class.
The three-time defending Sunrise Region champions play three of their first four games against out-of-state opponents, starting with tonight’s season opener in the Sollenberger Classic against Salpointe Catholic (Ariz.). Kickoff is at 7:30 at Bishop Gorman, and the game is being televised on Fox Sports Prime (Cable 50).
“By strengthening the schedule, hopefully it will make us battle tested when the playoffs come around,” Muraco said. “The kids need to understand that to beat the elite teams you have to play a perfect game. The last two years, we’ve played Gorman tough for a certain amount of time, but not for four quarters. Hopefully by taking on these better teams, it will better prepare us if we’re lucky enough to play Gorman again.”
After tonight’s game against Salpointe, which is 112-28 since 2001 under coach Dennis Bene, Liberty hits the road to take on Centennial of Corona, Calif. The Huskies are ranked No. 16 by USA Today and advanced to the California Open Division state bowl game in 2012.
The Patriots then take on Silverado before hosting Hamilton of Chandler, Ariz., on Sept. 20. Hamilton is ranked No. 28 by USA Today and is the defending Arizona Division I state champion.
“The Centennial game was scheduled two years ago, and it’s hard to plan out two years in advance,” Muraco said. “I look at it as another way for our program to attract quality kids that want to come to Liberty. Hopefully if people see, hey, here’s a public school that’s doing all the same things a private school’s doing … then maybe they’ll want to come to Liberty and try.
“It’s a gamble because you don’t want to go out and get embarrassed, obviously. But looking at how we’ve played Gorman and how Gorman’s fared against the elite teams in the country, we felt we could go out and compete with them, so why not take the risk and go for it?”
The Patriots have plenty of size up front, including a defensive line that features two talented bookends in 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound Army commit Jarvis Polu and junior Noah Jefferson (6-5, 255), a transfer from Desert Oasis and a brother of UNLV offensive tackle Cameron Jefferson.
Offensively, Muraco said he will return to the running back-by-committee approach with three-year standout Niko Kapeli now at UNLV. Senior Tyler Newman takes over at quarterback for Kai Nacua, who moved on to Brigham Young after a stellar career. Newman threw for 853 yards and a team-best 12 touchdowns in spot duty.
“Kai is a tough guy to replace. Not many people are like him,” Newman said. “It will be nice having the experience from last year.”
Salpointe will challenge a Patriots secondary that is the fastest in Muraco’s five years but returns only one starter (sophomore cornerback Bryan Roland). Standout Cameron Denson has given an oral commitment to Arizona and will line up at multiple positions on offense for the Lancers. Denson ran for 1,026 yards with 18 touchdowns and added 37 receptions for 585 yards and two TDs as a junior.
Three-year starting quarterback Andrew Cota threw for 1,759 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Transfer Kaelin Deboskie averaged 101.5 yards receiving for Colleyville (Texas) Heritage last season.
“They’re fast, but I’m pretty sure we can handle it,” Liberty senior linebacker Samson Monterde said. “We lost a big chunk of talent, but I think we can hold it this year. I’m confident in my team.”
The Patriots were a doormat in the Southeast League before Muraco’s arrival, and the coach said he is proud of the program’s rapid improvement. The invitation to participate in the Sollenberger Classic is another sign of Liberty’s progress.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to show what Nevada football is all about besides Bishop Gorman,” Muraco said. “I think Nevada gets a bad rap nationally, and if we go out and have a good game, it’s going to benefit everybody in Nevada.”
Contact reporter David Schoen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ.