Arbor View football coach Matt Gerber isn’t naive about the challenge his team faces in achieving its No. 1 goal this season.
“Our goal is to play (Bishop) Gorman twice,” Gerber said. “We’ll play them once in the regular season, and we want to face them again in the playoffs.”
In Gerber’s mind, that would mean the Aggies are playing in the Class 5A Southern Region championship game, which is the state semifinals. For that to happen, Arbor View probably would have to beat Liberty in a playoff game and break into a top two that has been the sole domain of Gorman and Liberty in recent years.
High school football season in the valley officially began Thursday night, with a 4A game between Shadow Ridge and Durango, but Friday will be opening night for teams in 5A and all other classifications.
Gerber knows it’s a tall task for his Aggies — or any other team — to knock off Gorman or Liberty.
But great feats aren’t accomplished by being timid.
“Whoever is in our way, we’re going to take them on,” Gerber said. “When you’re practicing three or four days per week from February to April and then four days per week from then on, you get pretty confident. We feel strong as a program.”
Gerber is in his third season as the Aggies’ coach but actually his fourth, as he noted his coaches worked as hard as ever during the COVID shutdown in 2020.
That allowed the Aggies to continue their transition from a grind-it-out, double-wing attack to a more balanced spread offense he thinks will allow them to better compete with the Gormans and Libertys.
The Aggies aren’t the only ones trying to break the Gorman-Liberty lock, and the others are split on how much attention should be paid to what’s going on with those two programs.
On one hand, a team can only get better if it focuses on what it needs to accomplish on a day-to-day basis. On the other, there’s a natural tendency to see what the most successful programs are doing and implement some of the same ideas.
“I don’t focus on other people,” Desert Pines coach Tico Rodriguez said. “Liberty and Gorman are both fantastic programs, but I’m watering my grass. I’m not watering theirs.”
Desert Pines has had as much front-line talent as anybody outside of Gorman and Liberty in recent years.
What has held the Jaguars back has been numbers. Desert Pines usually has about 40 players on its varsity roster, about half of what can be found on the sidelines at Gorman and Liberty.
“We’re trying to build depth to compete with those schools,” Rodriguez said. “When we get an injury, it’s devastating, where they’re two- or three-deep at every position. We’re hoping to have 50 players this year. It’s not 80, but it’s better than the 35 we’ve had in some years.”
Liberty coach Rich Muraco hasn’t kept it a secret that he modeled his program as much as he could like Gorman’s to reach its level.
It took time, but the Patriots continually grew more and more competitive with the Gaels before finally pulling the upset in 2019, a 30-24 overtime victory in a playoff game that ended Gorman’s 115-game winning streak against in-state teams and its run of 10 consecutive state titles.
Gorman defeated Liberty 35-14 in last year’s 5A state semifinal and regained the state title the next week — its 11th in the past 12 seasons — but the fact that the Patriots can even be mentioned in the same breath as the Gaels is a testament to how far the program has come.
It also gave hope to other public schools that those heights can be achieved.
“I think you should set your sights on Liberty and Gorman, because if you don’t, you’ll never get to that level,” Foothill coach Vernon Brown said. “If you’re not competing to be the best, you’re wasting your time. Coach Muraco, you have to give him credit. He took that approach with Gorman, and you see now that it’s competitive between them.”