The unusually large senior class for Liberty football was fraying at the seams after a 41-17 home loss to Phoenix Pinnacle on Oct. 18 that left the Lions at 5-3 and dashed their goal of qualifying for the eight-team open division.
A little more than a month later, football is fun again in North Peoria. And while there are schematic reasons for the Lions’ 4-1 record since that loss, Liberty is one of 10 Arizona schools playing football in December largely because it has rediscovered what made this team an open 8 contender in the first place.
“We kind of had a come to Jesus moment as a team. We got together and were trying to focus more on the players trying to build that bond, and less on the football aspect and that end goal,” senior offensive tackle Temoc Sandoval said.
That worked. The team entered the 6A football playoffs (which was now minus four open division teams) as the No. 7 seed. Following a pair of dominant home wins, the Lions grabbed a 26-14 first-half lead against No. 6 Phoenix Desert Vista (9-4) in a Nov. 22 semifinal and held on for a 33-30 victory.
That win sent Liberty (9-4) to its second title game in school history. The Lions face No. 1 seed Mesa Red Mountain (12-1) in the 6A championship game at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec 6 in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.
“Our practices have been fun. We don’t have many more to spend together,” senior linebacker Isaiah Pittman said. “Sometimes we hang together outside of school. We’re brothers now.”
Coach Mark Smith realized this team was starting to play up to its capabilities again during the only loss in the last five games. Scottsdale Chaparral clinched a 36-35 victory and the final open division spot on a last play touchdown pass.
But the coach saw his team once again playing for one another and playing this game with passion.
“We played pretty well and should have won it. But we did some things in that game that weren’t very characteristic of us. We talked about penalties and turnovers. Anybody can say that. And hat’s off to Chaparral. They made the plays when they needed to make them. If we don’t fumble a punt at the end and make one more play, it’s a different story. But maybe we’re not the seventh seed and we’re not here talking today,’ Smith said.
By then, senior quarterback Jonah Guevara wrested control of the job. Late last year and early this year, junior Brock Mast came in for a couple series a game.
That shuffle largely ended after the Pinnacle game, with Mast only seeing a handful of snaps in the first-round blowout of Avondale LaJoya and throwing one pass against Desert Vista.
“It really boosts your confidence to know your coaches trust you and they’re going to run with you. That helped a little bit. But it was more about getting back to what made us this team,” Guevara said.
He rewarded the coaches’ faith by rushing 17 times for 105 yards against Chaparral. In the playoffs, Guevara is 26 of 37 passing for 511 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s added 15 rushes for 162 yards and five scores.
“He has the ability to do a lot without doing it in volume. We don’t need to have him throw it 30 times to have a good game. He has the ability to go 10-15 for 240 yards and three touchdowns, and rush the ball another five times for 60 yards and two touchdowns,” Smith said.
Still, the biggest spark for this senior-dominated squad came from its freshman sensation. Zaccheus Cooper returned for the Oct. 11 game at Boulder Creek, but broke out Oct. 25 at O’Connor with 15 carries for 120 yards and a score.
In the last five games, Cooper has 77 rushes for 634 yards and five touchdowns.
“Having Z in the backfield made us a much tougher running team. Against Liberty, Nevada we started running the ball well. And we figured if we could run the ball on them we could run against anyone. We figured out who we are as a offense,” Sandoval said.
Now Cooper alternates carries with senior Joseph Forney and gives Guevara another threat to play off of.
Forney is the team’s leading rusher and also saw his role expand after the Pinnacle loss. In the final five games, he has 44 carries for 262 yards and five touchdowns.
“Everybody’s got more than one back at our level. You gotta have that depth,” Smith said. “On the defensive side of the ball with Isaiah and Jace, we don’t have anybody else like them, that are big linebackers like that. They’re our big linebackers that can make plays.”
Cooper and Forney’s emergence as a two-headed tailback monster allowed Pittman and fellow senior linebacker Jace Accurso to focus on being the Lions’ star linebackers.
Pittman has not carried the ball since the trip to Nevada while Accurso has nine runs in short-yardage situations over the final five games.
Now that duo has grown into the team’s second- and third-leading tacklers.
“We already knew Joe was good and his years of experience have helped the team. With Zaccheus, we kind of had an idea of what he was like. Once he hit the field we knew he was good,” Pittman said. “We eased off and me and Jace went to defense. Now we’ve excelled.”
Meanwhile, the offensive line that was the team’s dominant unit and the backs behind it have found their rhythm.
And neither back has shied away from the physicality of schools like Desert Vista.
“Joe’s improvement from last season to this has been tremendous. He’s really been able to mentor Z and show him the way we do things here. Z’s just really taken off with that. We knew he was pretty special this summer. He was able to play 7-on-7 with us and able to keep up physically as well as the fundamental stuff,” Guevara said.
All hands need to be on deck against Red Mountain, another team with open division dreams who just missed out because of a weak - and out of their control - region schedule.
In particular, Accurso and Pittman will need to focus on their defensive skills to try to slow a versatile offensive machine averaging 48 points and 440 yards a game.
“They’re the highest scoring team in the state with 600-some-odd points. They can run and throw and their quarterback is a dual threat. Their offensive line is big, and I think there’s three Division I kids on that line. They got some backs that can go and a good receiver. They’re a complete football team,” Smith said.
The coach saw the Mountain Lions in a preseason scrimmage with Phoenix Brophy Prep and Pinnacle and was impressed. Both 6A finalists are led by an ASU-bound offensive lineman — Red Mountain’s Ben Bray and Liberty’s Luke Thompson.
Fellow Mountain Lion offensive tackle Jake Griffin boasts 12 Division I offers, including several from Pac- 12 schools. Center Costen Cooley committed to the Air Force Academy.
That only amplifies the role of Accurso, Pittman and fellow senior Josh Filby. And the defensive line rotation of Grant Collins, David Rassas, Colin Lupinacci, Mike Hammond and Luke Stephenson gets a workout.
“There’s should be no errors after a guy comes off. It’s usually like the first string is still in,” Pittman said.
Sophomore safety Jax Stam, last year’s freshman phenom, leads Liberty with 93 tackles.
Red Mountain sports a solid defense, led by dominant end Tre Smith with 17.5 sacks and 82 tackles.
Survive the Mountain Lions' onslaught and Liberty will make a coach’s prophecy come true.
“Coming into our freshman year, coach (Brian) Cherry, our strength coach, said on his first day that we were going to be the first class to win a state championship. Seeing the possibility come to light has been cool to us,” Guevara said.
Smith was the defensive coordinator in 2014 when Liberty played rival Centennial for the 5A title. That loss was Dan Filleman’s final game as coach before he moved to Colorado.
Smith moved up to head coach in May 2015 said he appreciates the sacrifice of the coaches and Liberty community that made a return trip possible.
“For the community ... they put so much into this program. They really do. We couldn’t do the things we do without them. Our boosters have been phenomenal and the community support for team meals and the like has been phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for more,” Smith said.
Sandoval was a junior high student watching older brother Brandon start on the Lions line against Centennial in Sun Devil Stadium. Friday, he comes full circle.
“When I was little, I was always going to my brother’s games. I went to the state championship game when my older brother was a junior. It was really cool and I wanted to get to the same spot. To finally get this opportunity in my senior year is really exciting,” Sandoval said.