Liberty coach Rich Muraco pumped his fist in the air as his bench let out a collective sigh of relief.
Any thoughts of a Sierra Vista comeback in a Desert Region semifinal game Friday melted away as Patriots backup quarterback Kanyon Stoneking lofted a 41-yard pass to senior David Elder to convert a third-and-12 with 4:16 left. Suddenly it didn’t matter that Liberty’s stout defense had given up two late touchdowns to bring some drama to its home playoff game late.
All that mattered is Stoneking’s pass set up the Patriots for one last touchdown to make the final score 36-14 and locked in a date with Bishop Gorman on Nov. 24 in the regional title game.
“The fact that it was a close game, I’d rather that than a blowout because we’ll be ready if we get one,” Elder said. “I know we will be in a tight situation against Gorman, so now that we did it here, we’ll be prepared.”
Liberty (7-4) found itself in a pressure situation late despite having built a 29-0 lead through three quarters. The Patriots, who had 419 yards of offense, scored on three of their first four drives and appeared to pull away on a key third quarter sequence.
Junior safety Lehi Ausage sacked Sierra Vista quarterback Jordan Solomon for a safety, and Elder broke off a 45-yard TD run on Liberty’s next offensive play to give the Patriots their largest lead of the game.
The Mountain Lions (7-5) fought back, though, and Solomon threw two TD passes up the middle to cut his team’s deficit to 29-14 with 8:23 left in the fourth quarter. The QB’s first TD pass ended a shutout streak of 213 minutes, 16 seconds for Liberty’s defense, which hadn’t allowed a point since Oct. 19.
The Patriots offense responded with one last scoring drive to seal the game thanks to Stoneking and Elder’s connection on a play that Elder said was wide open earlier in the game but missed. That allowed Liberty to turn the page to its next game, which will be against the team that’s handed it a loss in its final game for four straight seasons.
“It’s something that with the realignment, the way everything broke down, we knew this was a pretty good possibility that this could be the championship game,” Muraco said. “I know a lot of people are looking forward to it. We’re excited.”