Sunday, May 24, 2020 | 2 a.m.
Editor’s Note: The Las Vegas Sun’s annual showcase of the best in high school sports, the Sun Standout Awards, was canceled this month as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. While the pandemic may have pushed the event off the calendar until 2021, our commitment to spotlighting prep sports is undiminished. Our local athletes did some amazing things, both on and off the field. Today, we share their stories.
Liberty coach Rich Muraco couldn’t hear anything after Bishop Gorman missed a field goal on the first possession of overtime in the Desert Region championship football game last November.
The Patriots still needed to score on their own ensuing drive to secure victory but that seemed a foregone conclusion to those hollering and jumping in the packed home stands. As if that wasn’t enough, pandemonium engulfed Liberty’s sideline.
School administrators, assistant coaches and players on the bench instinctively ran toward the special-teams unit coming off the field with high-fives, congratulatory leaps and bellowed yells of encouragement. Star junior running back Zyrus Fiaseu tried suggesting a play to Muraco that Liberty should run from the 10-yard line, where it would get the ball. Senior captain Maurice Hampton wanted to lobby for going to 10 personnel — a wide receiver-heavy offensive set that had served Liberty well at the goal line all year.
Muraco finally had to scream at the top of his lungs at everyone to shut up so he could put the finishing touches on his game plan.
“There was no doubt in my mind we were winning the game right there,” Muraco said. “But I was just like, ‘Do we just kick a field goal right now and win this game?’ I didn’t want to risk a fumble or a penalty or making a chip-shot field goal something longer, so I needed to talk to my staff on the headphones. We decided to make it easier on the field-goal team and just run up the middle a couple times.”
Muraco and his staff sent Hampton, also the field-goal holder, away to the kicking net with kicker Dillon Fedor and gathered the Patriots’ heavy personnel with an obvious intention. They wanted to fall forward for a couple yards on first- and second-down and then kick a game-winning field goal on third-down.
That wasn’t enough for Fiaseu, who was consumed with getting into the end zone when he got the ball on second down.
“I wanted to score the winning touchdown,” Fiaseu said. “I’d rather beat them by a touchdown than a field goal.”
Fiaseu got his wish, running untouched for a 7-yard touchdown to give Liberty a 30-24 win and so much more. It ended an unprecedented run of dominance as Bishop Gorman had won 10 straight state championships and 115 consecutive games against local opponents. For Liberty, it was a moment a decade in the making.
• • •
Muraco took over at Liberty, a program that had never previously managed a winning season in five years since the school opened, in 2009. It was the same year Tony Sanchez arrived at Bishop Gorman.
Both men immediately transformed the landscape of Nevada high school football with their respective teams — a process that continued when Kenny Sanchez succeeded his brother at Gorman in 2015. But it wasn’t until 2011, in the state semifinals, when the two programs that were then separated in different regions squared off.
Gorman struggled more than the 56-34 final score in that game may indicate as Liberty twice captured first-half leads in a game that went down as one of high school football’s most memorable of the past decade. It certainly was among the most attended, as the Polynesian community Muraco helped implant as the DNA of Liberty football showed up in droves to the neutral-site Rancho High.
Fiaseu, then in first grade, recounts the game as a life-changing moment.
“It was the first time I watched them play and it was my birthday,” Fiaseu said. “Ever since then, I was wanting to play at Liberty and every year I wanted to watch the Gorman game. Gorman kept winning, and each time, it lit a fire under me.”
Liberty solidified its spot as Gorman’s biggest competition over the next few years, but the scoring margins in games between the two powerhouses only increased. The Gaels had become a national brand, attracting blue-chip talent from all across the country, and they flaunted it best when they faced the Patriots.
Gorman won the next four meetings by an average of 54 points per game, including a humiliating 84-8 victory in the 2016 state championship game, the last season before Fiaseu arrived in high school.
“It almost started to feel like Gorman was never going to lose, like they had some stranglehold on football,” Muraco said.
Muraco retained some solace by knowing the future was bright with the best incoming freshman class of his tenure for the 2017 season, but even that could have been in doubt. Tight end Moliki Matavao and quarterback Daniel Britt looked like potential stars, but Fiaseu was the sure thing, and he had options.
Already regarded as one of the best eighth-graders in the country, Fiaseu could have enrolled at Gorman to maximize his recruiting potential at a school that had just won three consecutive national championships. Muraco remembers the opportunity being there, but Fiaseu said he and his family never truly considered it.
“They’re a great team and all but Liberty is who I rep,” Fiaseu said. “It’s in my blood.”
• • •
Outwardly, Muraco was always optimistic about Liberty overcoming the Gorman barrier. Year after year, he would come into the season preaching to his team that they could be the group to finally knock off Bishop Gorman.
But realistically and privately, he had assembled more of a concrete timeline in his head.
“I always looked to the future and I really thought this upcoming season (2020) was going to be the year for sure where we would have a chance to win a state championship with Zyrus, Mo, Daniel and all these kids in their senior year,” Muraco said.
That wasn’t Fiaseu’s mindset. From the time he was a freshman, he told coaches that the Patriots were going to win a pair of state championships.
Humbling back-to-back playoff losses to Gorman in Fiaseu’s first two years didn’t change his outlook. Liberty had trimmed its deficit — losing 35-13 in 2017 and 42-28 in 2018 — to further convince Fiaseu the time was now.
It was something he discussed coming into the season with teammates like Britt, senior linebacker Toa Tai, junior linebacker Zephaniah Maeae, senior lineman Alofaletauia Maluia and senior lineman Garrett Vea, all of whom had grown up around the program.
“It all goes back to our younger years,” Fiaseu said. “We were all tired of losing to (Gorman). We knew we were ready.”
Fiaseu’s premonition looked faulty at best through September after Liberty started 0-5.
No one thought the Patriots would come out unscathed in a five-game set against national opponents that arguably made for one of the country’s toughest nonconference slates. But it was reasonable to expect them to win at least one or two of the games.
Instead, they were outscored by a total of 105 points and negativity surrounded the locker room.
“I’m not going to lie, the way the season shook out, sitting at 0-5, I didn’t think we had any chance of beating Gorman,” Muraco said.
Making matters worse, the team had a deepening rift by virtue of a quarterback controversy. Some thought senior Kanyon Stoneking, who came into the season as the starter and played well in stretches, should stay under center, and others thought Britt, who had just come back from an injury, deserved a full-time chance.
Between the infighting and the jarring sight of a poll that had Liberty ranked at No. 5 in the state, Hampton knew something had to change. After the last practice before the Patriots’ Nevada schedule began, the seniors along with a few select juniors like Fiaseu and Matavao had a team meeting to clear the air.
“We saw how everyone was counting us out and that really drove us,” Hampton said. “We all had separate thoughts on what should be happening, what should be going on and we realized we needed to approach the team with a different attitude and a different mindset. Some players were questioning things, but that’s when we stopped questioning and weren’t divided anymore.”
Muraco and the coaching staff committed to Britt, and his scrambling ability transformed the offense, if not a lethal accuracy that surprised even his biggest supporters. Britt finished the season with 23 touchdowns to one interception while completing 78 percent of his passes.
Just as important, the defense became impenetrable. The starters didn’t allow a touchdown in four consecutive games to start the in-state season, and only one out of seven pre-Gorman opponents scored in double digits.
“After those first five games, we realized we were playing for more than ourselves,” Matavao said. “That really brought us together and really mentally prepared us for Gorman.”
• • •
The regional championship game got off to a frustratingly familiar start for Liberty.
Within the first 90 seconds, Gorman’s Penn State-committed quarterback Micah Bowens connected with his top target, Washington-bound Rome Odunze, for a 45-yard touchdown. Britt later lost a fumble inside the 10-yard line on what would have likely otherwise been a touchdown run.
Liberty went into halftime trailing 17-3.
“I remember those bad times the best,” Hampton said. “Going into halftime down that much, we didn’t want to go home. Coach Muraco came in and told us, ‘We’re not going to lose this football game.’ That’s when I knew we were going to win.”
The same feeling struck Matavao after he had a couple catches in Liberty’s initial second-half drive that ended with a Fiaseu touchdown run. Meanwhile, the Patriots’ defense shut down the Gaels’ offense.
Liberty put up back-to-back scores after its leading receiver, sophomore Germie Bernard, pulled down an 18-yard fade pass to tie the game at 17-17 in the third quarter. Bowens answered in the fourth quarter, but the Patriots got the ball back with plenty of time and immediately started moving down the field and threatening to tie the game.
Their progress stalled around midfield with about five minutes remaining, leading to a 4th-and-4 play that Muraco felt would decide the season. Britt dropped back and looked for Bernard, Hampton and Matavao as designed but they were covered.
Fiaseu, however, slipped out of the backfield undetected and Britt checked down to him for a 25-yard completion.
“Daniel was a stud, an all-star,” Matavao said. “There’s a fire in him that lights up everybody. He knows how to read the defenses and how to make a play. That’s the best thing about him, and he showed it.”
Two plays later, Britt rolled out and looked for receivers before pulling the ball down and beating the Gaels’ defense to the edge for a 5-yard touchdown run. It brought him to 258 total yards on the game, an MVP-type night for a player who didn’t begin the year as a starter.
If anyone embodied overcoming adversity and harsh circumstances, it was Britt. Many feared he wouldn’t be able to play his junior season at all after he shattered multiple bones in cheekbone and eye socket during spring practice and had to undergo emergency surgery.
“An amazing comeback story,” Hampton said. “This man started off the season breaking his face and no one ever thought he’d be able to jump in and be the starting quarterback. But we were taught to never a count a man out, ever.”
• • •
Liberty’s defense gave up practically nothing the rest of the game. Gorman’s game-winning drive opportunity in regulation fizzled out prematurely, and their overtime possession was even less effective.
Vea came down the line in textbook fashion to stuff a running play for a loss on first down. Bowens slipped on second down. Liberty senior cornerback Donte Bowers stifled Gorman’s plans to exploit a size mismatch on third down by breaking up a slant pass intended for Odunze to lead to the missed field goal.
Inspired by watching teammates one-by-one rise to the occasion in the moments they had dreamed about, Fiaseu thought there was no way he could fail to score when he heard the second-down play call on Liberty’s overtime offensive possession. It was the same dive toss he was trying to tell Muraco to run amid the chaotic aftermath of the missed field goal.
Muraco wasn’t thinking touchdown until the snap when Liberty’s offensive line mauled Gorman’s defensive front. After years of getting pushed around by Gorman, Liberty appropriately turned the tables and crushed its rival on the decisive play.
“All the kids executed on that play,” Muraco said. “If you watch it on film, the hole was gigantic. We could have driven a truck through there.”
Fiaseu flung the ball through the air and collapsed to his knees in tears on the track after crossing the end zone while everyone else from the home side rushed to the field. A celebration that had waited 10 years was finally under way, a celebration that made the predecessor minutes earlier after the missed field goal look tame.
“On the play Zyrus ran into the end zone, I had a pancake block so I’m on the floor,” Matavao said. “The whole town was on the field as I get up. I was like, ‘Wow look at this.’ The whole sideline was already on the field, it was packed, cameras in everyone’s faces. It was surreal.”
There was so much commotion that Muraco escaped the customary Gatorade bath for several minutes until his players tracked him down in the middle of a live, televised interview and overtook the shot by swarming him. Despite festivities that lasted into the weekend, Muraco was able to keep his team focused so the victory wasn’t all in vain.
Liberty won two more games, against Bishop Manogue in Reno and Centennial at Sam Boyd Stadium, to win its first state title and become the first non-Gorman 4A champion from Southern Nevada since 2006.
“To finally be able to overcome an obstacle, a hurdle, a goal we set for ourselves and thinking back to how many times we played them and lost to them and all the hard work we put into it, that was really, in the months after the win, what shone through to me,” Muraco said. “It was really a special thing to go through.”