For a team playing host in a playoff game for the first time, Southeast League champion Liberty looked like a team that had already been there.
The No. 3 Patriots controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, controlled the clock, and controlled visiting Rancho for the majority of their Sunrise Region playoff opener.
That workman-like effort allowed Liberty (9-1) to cruise to a 34-6 victory Friday for the first home playoff win in school history.
“We just wanted to establish the run and control the clock tonight,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. “We had a few mishaps here and there, but for the most part, we were able to execute our game plan just the way we wanted.”
The Patriots will look to make it two home playoff wins Thursday at 7 p.m. when they host Canyon Springs in a Sunrise Region semifinal.
Against Rancho (5-6), Liberty’s defense kept the Rams one-dimensional, holding Rancho’s 1,000-yard rusher Shamel David to only 16 yards.
Junior defensive end Kimo Seau, who powered the Patriot defense to holding the Rams to 34 rushing yards and 167 total yards, said stopping the run was about getting back to basics.
“We really want to get back to playing good run defense,” Seau said. “Last year that’s what we were known for, but this year it’s been kind of shaky. So we were coming out hard-hitting tonight and trying to bring that back to Liberty.”
The Patriot defense was particularly impressive in the second half, when it limited Rancho to 36 total yards.
“We knew what they were doing (in the second half) and we were more ready to come out and play our game,” Seau said. “We knew they ran a lot of screens, so the plan was to just come up and just hit them.”
On offense, Liberty hit the Rams with a balanced attack. Niko Kapeli helped establish the run game with 17 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown, and Teu Tai and Ty Bird each added scoring runs. Quarterback Kai Nacua also threw a pair of first-half touchdown passes to keep the Rancho defense off-balance.
“We haven’t had much balance to our offense this year,” Muraco said. “In order to be a state championship contender, you have to be more balanced. You have to keep teams guessing. So that was a goal for us tonight.”
Rancho still had a chance to make things interesting in the second quarter.
Trailing 14-0, Diante Rainwater hauled in a 37-yard touchdown pass from Will Gosse-Gardet to trim Liberty’s lead to eight. The Rams’ defense then held the Patriots to a 3-and-out on the next possession, and Rancho took the ball and drove to the Liberty 42, poised to trim the lead even further.
At that point, Liberty’s defense stiffened, forcing the Rams into a pair of incompletions on third and fourth down.
After the Patriots took over on offense, it took a mere eight plays for Nacua to hit Andrew Martinez with a 43-yard TD pass down the middle of the field, and Liberty pushed it’s lead to 20-7 to pull away for the win.
“It comes down to strength and being physical, and that’s one of the stronger teams in the valley,” Rancho coach Elvin Dick said. “We knew we’d have to get out to a lead early and do some things, but it didn’t work out. When it comes down to it, we weren’t physical enough or strong enough.
“Going from 2-8, you have to give the kids who played last year credit. Those kids came out and got us into the playoffs. Getting in the playoffs was one of the goals this year. Obviously, we had higher goals, but that is a positive to build on.”
Liberty’s Muraco said Friday’s win was noteworthy, but his team is trying to make an even bigger mark on the postseason.
“It’s only our second year making the playoffs, and this was our first-ever home playoff win. It’s a great feeling,” Muraco said. “To be able to play another week is awesome. And hopefully we can keep it going and be playing in December. That’s the goal.”