If the Liberty football team was not already at Arizona’s big boy table, last fall’s four-game run to the 6A state title earned the Lions a seat.
Now the Lions plan to prove they belong by playing the toughest schedule in program history. Even with a COVID-shortened eight-game slate, Liberty is challenging more elite squads than ever before.
Four opponents played in the eight-team open division, starting with overall state champion Chandler. Mesa Red Mountain gets a 6A title rematch and Queen Creek has most of its 6A semifinal squad back. Phoenix Brophy Prep beat Liberty to start the 2019 season and was the No. 2 seed in 6A and the “other” opponent is North Peoria rival Sunrise Mountain — which is 2-2 against the Lions in the past four years.
“We’re going to put a team out there every week that we think can compete. Obviously, if we want to take the next step as a program, these are people we’ve got to beat. That’s easier said than done,” coach Colin Thomas said. “This is the toughest schedule we’ve had but last year was pretty tough too.”
It seems like too much for a team with a new head coach and without 40 graduated seniors. But Thomas moved up from offensive coordinator when Mark Smith returned to coach at his alma mater in Washington state. And a new crop of talent is ready to step up.
That is the expectation now. Every year the second powerhouse Peoria program to emerge in the 2000s plans to be in the mix and wants to play the best.
“I’m super happy that we have as hard of a schedule as we do. I love the competition and how aggressive those teams are,” senior safety/Kicker Shane Pitts said.
The losses are heavy, but Pitts is a key part of Liberty’s strongest unit. He is the second-leading returning tackler with 68, behind fellow safety Jax Stam.
Stam is one of two young prodigies who should flourish this year. The junior has started since the opening game of his freshman year, racked up 108 tackles as a sophomore and received his first scholarship offer in April from the University of New Mexico.
“They’re both also tremendous leaders. We feel really good about having those guys back,” Thomas said.
While several young players are pushing for time, two seniors are intriguing possibilities at cornerback. Zay Johnson could not get on the field for most of the season, yet made three tackles an the game-ending interception in overtime of the 6A title game.
Marquise Corley struggled for time at corner and tailback after transferring in from Goldwater and sitting out five games. Opportunity knocks this season.
“We have a couple different guys that can run the ball. Marquise Corley plays offense and defense for us,” Thomas said. “It was tough to get him reps. He’s a good player and we’re excited to get him out there and get him going.”
Liberty freshman tailback Zaccheus Cooper evades a diving tackle attempt by Phoenix Desert Vista senior linebacker Tyson Grubbs during a 6A football semifinal game at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix Nov. 22, 2019. [Christine Andert/For West Valley Preps]
Corley could start at cornerback but he is likely a change of pace on offense behind the other Lions prodigy. Zaccheus Cooper took the tailback job from three seniors late in his freshman season, gaining 669 yards on 84 carries before being injured in the semifinal.
Before his sophomore season begins, Cooper already has Division I offers from Morgan State and New Mexico. Thomas said fellow sophomore back Zach Wallace also is promising.
While Cooper moves into the starring role, senior quarterback Brock Mast finally has the stage to himself. Mast battled with Jonah Guevara for snaps each of the past two years, completing 66% of his passes for 1,059 yards in 2018 and 2019.
He will need to lead, as the receiving corps and offensive line is almost entirely new. Senior tackle Kyle Sfarcioc is the only other returning starter, and at 6-5, 290 pounds, a good place to start.
Thomas expects third-year varsity player Parker Johnston to be a steadying force in his first chance to start at center or guard. With the team so early into football drills, the rest of the line may not take shape until late September.
“We might have a sophomore starting on the line. As an offense we’ve got to be explosive,” Sfarcioc said. “We made some tweaks. And we have some tricks up our sleeve.”
The top three receivers graduated, and another transfer before the 2019 season will see a larger role. Former Sunrise Mountain quarterback Cailin Knapp picked up some catches late in the season and early in the playoffs, particularly as the Lions’ threat on the fly sweep.
Junior receiver Jordon Guevara and sophomore Grantt Brunelle have impressed in summer workouts. Senior Sam Wolford moved from linebacker to tight end and has a shot to be the Lions’ latest one-year wonder in the role, following Alec Moonier, Michael Eyde and Carter Hill.
Keeping with the theme, the front seven and the defensive coordinator are entirely new. Travis Guiney spent 10 years in that role at Desert Edge before heading to north Peoria and plans to use a 3-4 look more often.
Two young defensive linemen stand out for different reasons. Junior nose tackle Braden Croteau is built differently that older brother Braxten, now at Cal, but flashes a similar skill level. Sophomore defensive end My’keil Gardener is already 6-3, 275 pounds and could turn some heads very soon.
“He’s a very special, very talented and charismatic young man. We look forward to him having a great season,” Thomas said.
Liberty sophomore safety Jax Stam lines up a tackle of Phoenix Desert Vista sophomore tailback Devon Grubbs during a 6A semifinal Nov. 22, 2019 in Phoenix. [Christine Andert/For West Valley Preps]
Junior inside linebacker Gavin Dodge is another talent with more of a chance to play this year. Senior outside linebacker Cody Horn moved in from Texas, after playing for Smithson Valley High School in Spring Branch.
The new talent is getting used to Guiney’s slightly altered scheme, though Pitts said this defense and philosophy is not too different from Smith’s.
“It’s been real easy as far as a transition. The stuff he’s running is a little different but he’s making it easy on us. Most of the calls we ran last year are all the same. And the stuff he brought in this offseason, I think it will help us tremendously,” Pitts said.
He was the team’s second-leading scorer last year, with 77 points off kicks. Now that the chances are good for Liberty to play some kind of season, Pitts said players are thinking thank God they worked so hard in the offseason.
Sfarcioc said each position group got together to look at workouts they could do and get the younger kids ready technique wise.
Forced to adapt this spring and summer, Thomas said the program may have more online meetings going forward. COVID-related limitations to drills, large groups and offseason 7-on-7 tourneys meant an extra foundational teachings, and a slower more methodical build up.
But this season starts with more uncertainty than any other, for all teams.
“Blocking and tackling are going to be at a premium since no one has been able to do it,” Thomas said.
The 6A playoffs received less attention than usual, owing to the inaugural open division of the top eight ranked teams in 6A-4A.
So this might be the Lions’ last time to play the lack of respect card.
“I want to prove to this state who Liberty is. Not many people have heard of us. They’re going to know this year,” Sfarcioc said.