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Bishop Gorman’s Zachariah Branch proves too fast for Liberty

Updated November 12, 2021 - 11:36 pm

Three days before the high school game of the year in Southern Nevada, Liberty football coach Rich Muraco talked about getting the ball into the hands of Germie Bernard, his all-everything wide receiver bound for Washington of the Pac-12, as much as possible.

If Bernard could get 20 or 25 touches, Muraco thought the Patriots might have to chance to upset mighty Bishop Gorman for the second time in three years, as crazy as that sounded — or at least used to sound.

Bernard touched the ball 19 times. He rushed 10 times for 84 yards out of the Wildcat formation. He caught seven passes for 143 yards out of more traditional formations. He returned a kickoff 49 yards. He scored both of Liberty’s touchdowns.

As Muraco predicted, those touches gave Liberty a fighting chance.

But what was it Neil Diamond sang in that infernal song? Touching me, touching you?

Gorman also has a speedy wide receiver. His name is Zachariah Branch. He touched the ball twice in the first half. The first time he went 93 yards on a punt return. The second time he went 53 yards after catching a pass.

The two lightning-strike touchdowns basically were the difference in Gorman’s 35-14 home victory Friday in the Class 5A Southern Region championship game that was more competitive than that.

“It’s humongous to have an electrifying player like that,” Gorman coach Brent Browner said about the junior speed demon and Southern Region champion in the 100 meters.

Dash to the end zone

Liberty, which ended Gorman runs of 10 state titles and 115 wins over in-state opponents with a stunning 30-24 overtime victory the last time the teams met in 2019, came out prepared to shock the valley again.

The Patriots used short passes to the flanks to move the chains and control time of possession before punting the ball to where Branch could touch it for the first time.

Gorman being Gorman, the game was about to change. Give the Gaels an inch, and they’ll turn it 93 yards the other way.

“We knew all week don’t kick the ball to that kid,” Muraco said about Branch’s blue streak to the end zone. “I think he’s the 100-yard dash champion, and he showed it on that play.”

If Branch’s punt return changed the complexion of the game, his 53-yard TD catch gave it a complete makeover. It not only staked Gorman to a 14-0 lead but also forced Liberty to abandon its running game after the Gaels kept applying heaps of pressure to Patriots quarterback Jayden Maiava, forcing him to unload before Bernard could get open.

“They were just winning one-on-one battles, it was nothing special, no complicated blitz schemes or anything,” Muraco said of Gorman’s relentless pass rush. “It was just their kids beating our kids.”

The second half was essentially a stalemate, with each side scoring a touchdown before Gorman tacked on a score inside of a minute to play. It gave credence to a notion that Liberty might be inching closer to leveling the playing field against a Gorman juggernaut that has spent the past 15 years or so tilting it to an acute angle.

Inching closer

During the practice week, Muraco talked briefly about “The Game That Never Was,” last year’s potential meeting between the Patriots and Gaels that was spiked along with the entire 2020 public school season by COVID.

He said that team was shaping up as his best ever. Liberty had nine projected starters on offense and seven on defense coming back from the team that had beaten Gorman in 2019, including stalwarts Moliki Matavao (Oregon), Zyrus Fiaseu (San Diego State), Ben Roy (UCLA), Daniel Britt (Montana) and Zephaniah Maea (Colorado).

Conversely, the team that lost to Gorman on Friday had only four players who played in the 2019 game.

“We’ve played them tough the last four times — it’s (become) a game where both teams have to come and play and the coaches have to coach,” Muraco said as Gorman celebrated another region title that this time it had to earn.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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