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Mistakes haunt Liberty as McQueen pulls out win in 4A semifinal

RENO — With the snow beginning to stick and the footing becoming a problem, Liberty coach Rich Muraco thought his team’s chances of running for 3 yards was better than relying on an extra-point kick.

The Patriots’ missed 2-point conversion try with 6:31 left turned out to be the difference as host McQueen beat Liberty 7-6 in a Class 4A state semifinal Saturday.

Running back Niko Kapeli, who finished with 26 carries for 165 yards, was stopped at the line of scrimmage on the 2-point try, after scoring from 3 yards on the previous play.

“We felt like we were driving the ball that whole last series running our power play, and the play right before that was wide open,” Muraco said. “With the weather conditions, it was like a blizzard right there, and I wasn’t sure that necessarily a kick was going to be the way to go with the way we mishandled the snap earlier.”

Liberty (11-2) dominated play early, running 35 offensive plays to 16 by McQueen (12-1) in the first half, but trailed 7-0 because of a 69-yard touchdown pass from running back Nick Shepard to wide receiver Rollins Stallworth on McQueen’s second play from scrimmage.

“It was a great call for them,” Muraco said. “They beat us on a trick play. You’ve got to know when to call it, and it was the perfect time.”

Shepard took a toss on what appeared to be a sweep around right end, but he pulled up and lofted a pass that found Stallworth alone behind Liberty’s defense.

“I think they thought we were going to try to come out and establish the run for a few plays, and we thought we could take a shot, and it worked,” McQueen coach Jim Snelling said.

The Patriots drove into McQueen territory three times in the first half but came up empty because of mistakes.

On their first possession, a holding penalty nullified a 20-yard pass completion that would have given the Patriots a first-and-goal, and on the next play McQueen cornerback Arnold Carillo intercepted Liberty quarterback Kai Nacua.

A 17-yard run by Kapeli on Liberty’s second possession got the Patriots to the McQueen 37, but a fumbled snap ended that threat.

On their first possession of the second quarter, the Patriots moved from their 13-yard line to the McQueen 4, but Miah Tauala was drilled at the McQueen 11 after he tried to run following a bad snap on a 21-yard field-goal attempt.

“Dumb penalties, fumbled snaps, it’s part of the game and part of the elements, and it’s the way the ball bounces, I guess,” Muraco said.

Kapeli’s touchdown run with 6:31 left capped a 15-play, 64-yard drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock and brought the Patriots within 7-6.

Muraco said he didn’t hesitate on his decision to go for two.

“We went for the win,” he said. “That’s the gamble you take, and you have to live with that decision. Obviously it’s very disappointing. There is a pit in your stomach right now from losing a game knowing you’re so close to being in a state championship game, but overall to see where we’ve come from the last two years, I’m super proud of our kids and how well they’ve played this year.”

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