Earlier in the week, Liberty senior Ty Byrd called playing in the Sunrise Region championship game “the biggest thing Liberty’s ever been in.”
Byrd and his teammates made sure that statement wasn’t true for long Friday night.
The Patriots (11-1) dominated from the start on the way to a 35-14 road victory over Las Vegas High (11-2) for the Sunrise title.
“We haven’t gotten here before, and it feels good to be here and become a champion,” Liberty senior defensive tackle Teu Tai said.
Liberty plays at McQueen in a Class 4A state semifinal at 1 p.m. Nov. 27 in Reno.
The Patriots had never made the postseason before last season and were making their first appearance in the Sunrise Region championship game Friday. Las Vegas was making its 10th appearance in the game, but it was Liberty that came out of the gate ready to play.
The defense was especially dominant early. The Patriots harassed Las Vegas quarterback Hasaan Henderson, giving the junior little time to find open receivers.
“It got Henderson out of his rhythm,” Tai said of the pressure. “He wasn’t used to all those people coming at him. But I give him his props for bringing his team this far.”
The Patriots’ defense was nearly flawless in the first half, holding the Wildcats to minus-2 yards. Las Vegas finished with 216 yards, but most of those came long after the outcome was decided.
“Our defense was really, really fired up,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “All week all we heard was how fast they were and how slow we were. We made it a point of emphasis to fly to the ball, make sure we wrap up and hit them in the mouth, hit them hard.”
The 210-pound Tai led the defensive charge with three sacks and two tackles for loss.
“He is just an animal,” Muraco said. “When he wants to turn it up a notch, he’s really tough to stop. He’s a smaller (defensive) tackle, so he uses his speed, and he’s really a strong kid. And he just had a phenomenal game tonight.”
While the defense was dominating, the Patriots were grinding out yards on offense. Even before Liberty scored, the Patriots had taken control of the game. They ran 21 plays in the first quarter, compared with three for Las Vegas.
On the first play of the second quarter, quarterback Kai Nacua scored on a 1-yard run to cap a 14-play, 56-yard drive that took more than six minutes to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead.
“That’s our style,” Muraco said. “We want to run right at you. We want to control the line of scrimmage. We had a size advantage and we tried to exploit that.”
Four players scored rushing touchdowns as the Patriots racked up 242 yards on the ground.
“It was good,” Tai said. “We just kept moving the ball and making the clock tick down until it hit zero.”
Jordan Kapeli, a 215-pound fullback, scored on runs of 42 and 2 yards. Byrd and Anthony Morgan each added 10-yard scoring runs for Liberty, which led 28-0 at the half.
But it was the defense that keyed the victory for the Patriots.
In addition to sacking Henderson four times, they intercepted him twice. Henderson had thrown just three interceptions all season.
Ryan Nimmo’s interception led to Byrd’s scoring run, and Morgan picked off a pass with 47 seconds to go in the first half to set up Kapeli’s second TD run.
Las Vegas finally showed life in the fourth quarter when Lamond Powe scored on a 5-yard run with 4:27 to go.
After the Wildcats recovered an onside kick, Henderson hit Cameron Rogers with a 48-yard scoring strike, but that was all Las Vegas could muster.