On a night that the defense and running game made most of the noise for Liberty, it was a pass play that might have turned the game.
With the score tied at 10, Kai Nacua hit Jeremy Lagasca with a 75-yard touchdown pass with 7:52 to go in the third quarter, and the Patriots went on to secure a 37-17 home win over Green Valley on Friday night.
Green Valley had just tied the game on a 1-yard touchdown run by Kyler Chavez, and Liberty faced third-and-15 when Nacua hit Lagasca with the deep pass, and the senior receiver streaked in the end zone to give Liberty the lead for good.
"That was the play of the game offensively for us," Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. "Kai made a perfect throw; Jeremy made a great catch and was able to outrun the defense. Especially after they were able to score and tie the game and kind of grab some momentum back, we needed to answer like that."
The win gave fifth-ranked Liberty (6-1) sole possession of first place in the Southeast League at 4-0. Green Valley (5-2) slipped a game back at 3-1.
After the big pass play, Liberty was able to grind away with its ground game, and the defense sealed the win.
Liberty continually harassed Chavez, who was starting in place of senior Jacob Olim, who was out with a sprained knee. The sophomore, who was making his first varsity start, was sacked four times and threw five interceptions.
"He stepped in there against a good football team," Green Valley coach Brian Castro said. "I can't really fault him for too many things. We had some guys drop some passes here and there. In a situation like that, you need guys to step up and help you that have been there. We just didn't have that consistently enough."
Chavez completed 13 of 29 passes for 318 yards, including a 93-yard touchdown pass to Sean Ferraro.
"He's going to be a good quarterback when it's all said and done, and to be thrown into the fire like that is tough," Castro said.
Green Valley's defense was strong early before Liberty got a couple of breaks.
A Liberty punt hit a Green Valley player, and the Patriots recovered at the Green Valley 28. Five plays later, Niko Kapeli scored on a 1-yard run to put Liberty up 7-0.
Green Valley was called for roughing the kicker on the extra point, moving the kickoff into Green Valley territory. Muraco went for the onside kick, and Liberty recovered. That set up a 27-yard field goal by Austin Fitzgerald with 28 seconds left in the half.
"In the first half they did an amazing job of stuffing our run early," Muraco said. "We have faith in the run, that if we stick with it, things will develop."
Nacua and Jordan Kapeli added 1-yard touchdown runs in the second half for Liberty, and Skye Hesia returned an interception 36 yards for a score.
A bad snap set up Hesia's interception. Chavez scooped the ball up and tried to get off a pass as he was hit, but the ball went right to Hesia, who sprinted down the middle of the field for the score.
Niko Kapeli finished with 182 yards on 37 carries for Liberty, which rushed for 273 yards.
"We feel like we match up very well with the teams in our league as far as being able to wear them down," Muraco said. "Being that it was a close game at halftime, we felt real comfortable in that situation."
Contact prep sports editor Damon Seiters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4587.