A trophy or a title won’t be on the line Saturday, but Liberty football coach Rich Muraco can’t imagine a bigger game for his program.
The Patriots (11-1) take on two-time defending state champion Bishop Gorman (14-1) in the Class 4A state semifinals at 1 p.m. at Rancho. The winner plays the Northern Region champion in the state title game Dec. 3 in Reno.
“Even though there’s still the state championship game to be played, it’s almost like this game is our state championship game,” Muraco said. “If we don’t beat Gorman, we don’t get a shot at state. And Gorman’s the No. 1 team in the state and probably the West.
“(Our players) are extremely motivated to play them and prove that we belong on the field with them.”
Liberty has been a strong offensive team all season, scoring an average of 38.3 points. Unlike many of today’s top offensive squads, the Patriots aren’t a spread team, instead relying on a power running game, often with two fullbacks lined up in front of tailback Niko Kapeli.
“I don’t know if they’ve played too many teams like us over the last few years,” Muraco said. “So much of football nowadays is spread. We’re a run-right-at-you kind of team, punch you in the mouth and see how you handle it.
“It doesn’t matter who we play, we’re not going to adjust our style. We’re going to smack it with you for four quarters.”
Gorman has won 38 consecutive games against Nevada opponents, including a forfeit over Western this season. Of the 37 contested games, 33 were decided by 35 or more points.
But Liberty senior tight end/linebacker Jared Tuilagi thinks his team is different than most of the Nevada teams on which the Gaels have feasted.
“We’re physical. That’s definitely the first point,” Tuilagi said. “I don’t think Gorman has ever faced a real physical team in this valley. We’re a team that will come straight at you, punch you in the mouth and play hard football every down.
“I feel we’ll be able to wear them down or something and figure out a few ways to beat them.”
Running the ball effectively against Gorman would help. The Gaels have a high-powered offense featuring the area’s second-leading rusher in Shaquille Powell (2,037 rushing yards, 31 touchdowns).
But Gorman isn’t one-dimensional, as quarterback Jarrett Solomon has passed for 2,222 yards and 34 TDs.
“With a team like Gorman, you’ve got to keep their offense off the field,” Muraco said. “I think we have the team that’s built to do that, to drive five or six minutes.”
The Patriots average 301.8 yards rushing, led by Kapeli, who is tops in the area with 2,243 yards rushing.
Quarterback Kai Nacua (503 yards rushing) and fullback Jordan Kapeli (501 yards rushing) add more weapons.
“They’re definitely a big, physical football team,” Gorman senior linebacker Ben Guida said. “We’ve just got to make sure we stay low, we stay fundamentally sound and we stick to the game plan.”
Liberty lost 7-6 to McQueen in last year’s 4A state semifinals, so the Patriots have plenty of reason to be excited for a return to the semis.
But Gorman is just as thrilled to still be playing.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Guida said. “It’s great. I love coming out here in the cold weather, playing on Thanksgiving (week). It is really special.”
Tuilagi said he hopes his team has a special performance ready for Gorman, the area’s largest private school.
“This is probably the most exciting game I’ve ever been in in my life,” Tuilagi said. “I’ve been playing football since I was 5 or 6, and I’ve never been more excited for a game than this one.
“I feel like we’re going to make a statement and definitely win this one for the valley.”