TEMPE - Liberty had been here before, seemingly all year.
Leading the 6A title game 28-20 with 1:40 remaining the Lions could only watch as Mesa Red Mountain senior quarterback Hyrum Boren hit senior receiver Jared Wilson in stride for a 53-yard touchdown with 42 seconds remaining. George Ramirez caught Boren's two-point toss to give the Mountain Lions their first tie since the middle of the second quarter.
Liberty could not get moving in its next drive. But the Lions regrouped and scored on Jonah Guevara's 10-yard zone read touchdown run on the first play of overtime.
"One of our core values is - next play. We brought the team together. We got them down on a knee and explained to them how overtime worked and we had a prophecy about it. Meaning, I told the kids this 'We're going to get a score. We're going to get a stop. Game over. Score, stop, game over.' Liberty coach Mark Smith said.
A missed extra point added to the drama. Then on Red Mountain's ensuing fourth down play from the three, junior safety Zay Johnson intercepted Boren's pass in the end zone to seal Liberty's 34-28 victory and this young football program's first state title.
"I just let the d-line and linebackers do what they do. I just did what coach Johnson and coach Smith told me to do, drop get my coverage and break on the ball to make a play," Johnson said. "When I caught the ball, I felt like I was in a dream. I was waiting to wake up. Every second after it, it came to reality ... we just won state."
This 6A title game was a game worthy of that title. Naysayers believed the open division concept would water down the 6A bracket until it was almost unrecognizable.
The top four ranked 6A teams advanced to the open, including Liberty's region foes Phoenix Pinnacle and Scottsdale Chaparral.
What remained was an unpredictable bracket that led to top seed Red Mountain (12-2) falling by the slimmest of margins to No. 7 Liberty (10-4). And the final - officially called a conference championship, but announced as a state title by AIA official Brian Bolitho and PA man Jim Barnett afterward - mixed enough quality with thrills to feel worthy of the moniker.
"You couldn't have scripted it any better. That was must-see TV," Smith said.
While Red Mountain made a memorable comeback to force overtime, scoring twice in the final five minutes to erase a 28-14 deficit, extra football probably doesn't happen if Liberty does not handle the aftermath of its failed gamble than Red Mountain did its.
Both teams scored in the air in the opening quarter. Liberty never trailed, taking the lead less than six minutes in as Guevara connected with senior receiver Gavin Guy down the seam for a 43-yard touchdown.
"It really calmed us down. Me and Jonah have been playing together since seventh or eight grade and the connection is just there," Guy said.
The Mountain Lions answered back in less than four minutes as Boren connected with his favorite target, Ramirez, from 18 yards out. Ramirez led all receivers with seven catches for 93 yards and two scores.
The Lions seized second quarter momentum with a fourth-down stop in Red Mountain territory. After lining up in a full house backfield and calling time out, the Mountain Lions went back out in the same formation.
Senior linebacker/tailback Isaiah Pittman dropped senior tailback Ty McElroy for a one-yard loss and his team took over 38 yards from paydirt.
Six plays later Liberty scored as the right side of the offensive line opened up a gaping hole for senior linebacker/tailback Jace Accurso to stroll eight yards through.
"That's a good defensive line and a great team and our o-line dominated. I didn't even have to worry about cutbacks or anything. That touchdown wasn't on me. That's on them," Accurso said.
The team from Mesa then drove inside the Lions 10 but stalled and a 23-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.
In two plays the Lions grabbed control with a 69-yard strike from Guevara to senior tight end Carter Hill on a post route - as the big man chugged the final 25 or so for the score.
"The fourth-down really helped get our momentum going. When we get momentum, we're a really hard team to stop. That really showed tonight," Guevara said.
Smith's team knocked away a Hail Mary on the final play of the half to maintain that 21-7 advantage.
Then it was Liberty's turn to see a risky fourth down call backfire. The Lions lined up for a 25-yard field goal early in the third quarter but tried a fake where the holder tossed the ball back over his head to junior safety/kicker Shane Pitts.
Pitts lunged to catch the toss and could not regain his feet. Red Mountain took overe at its 15 with new life.
Boren completed a 25-yard dart to senior receiver Jackson Beecher on third and 9. A face mask brought the offense into Liberty territory.
Ramirez streaked down the field and Boren hit him from 39 yards out to draw the Mountain Lions within 21-14.
"Hats off to red Mountain. A very worthy opponent that played their tails off. Mesa and red Mountain can be proud of that program and their kids," Smith said.
The a three and out loomed for Liberty until Hill made a diving grab for 11 yards on third and 10.
Guevara then converted on third and 7 by scrambling for 10. The Lions controlled the ball until early in the fourth, when they faced fourth down and 2 at the Mountain Lions' 38.
After calling time out, Guevara lined up at punt depth before sneaking up to shotgun depth. He took the snap and this risk worked - Guevara took a couple steps toward the line of scrimmage then pitched to Accurso, who rumbled for five and a first down.
"That play where we converted we've always practiced that too (like the fake field goal) and it worked. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose," Accurso said.
The offense gained another first down, then senior tailback Joe Forney took a boundary screen 21 yards to the Red Mountain. Forney leaped in to score on the next snap.
Forney was one of several runners stepping up as both teams lacked their leadin rusher. Mountain Lions senior Deonce Elliott has been out since the an injury in the quarterfinals, while Liberty freshman Zacchues Cooper hobbled the sidelines in a walking boot.
Both quarterbacks were running threats. Boren led all rushers with 69 yards on 14 carries while Guevara had 44 yards on 11 runs.
McElroy rushed 18 times for 55 yards while Forney paced the Lions with 65 yards on 16 carries.
He also had help from Accurso and Pittman, who saw more snaps after concentrating on playing linebacker for the last month. The duo combined for 62 yards on 11 carries behind their veteran offensive line.
"We're not about one person. It is truly about a team and we is greater than me. We find a way to use our kids and keep them healthy the best way we possibly can. Somebody asked, 'What are you going to do with Z?' I said, 'What do you mean? Have you not seen the stable.' We've got five or six backs. We're okay."
Whatever Lion was running, they averaged 4.2 yards per carry against a defensive line that was the best unit of Red Mountain's defense.
Senior tackle Temoc Sandoval, senior guard Frank Thompson, senior center Brian Dean, senior guard Vicente Maestas and junior tackle Kyle Sfarcioc controlled the game like they have most of Liberty's wins in the last two years.
"Our entire season our defense has been great at giving us lots of different looks in practice so we knew that they couldn't throw something at us that we hadn't seen before," Dean said. "We were status quo, same as normal. We knew our roles and got after it tonight."
Red Mountain fought back on a 12-play drive in 3:55. Mike Peterson's team converted on fourth down near midfield and shook off a false start to score on McElroy's 7-yard touchdown run.
The Mountain Lions missed the extra point and trailed 28-20 with 4:24 left. But their special teams immediately made up for it by recovering the ensuing onside kick.
Liberty recovered and stopped Red Mountain on fourth down on the Lions' 44. The offense ran three times and forced the Mountain Lions to burn their time outs, but could not get a game-sealing first down.
Red Mountain took over at its 23. After Boren went one for two on his passes and an illegal shift, Wilson got behind the secondary and hauled in the touchdown.
Liberty had to recover from that, the two-point conversion to tie and losing yards on its short last drive.
What better way than scoring on the first play of overtime, as Guevara faked out the defense on the zone read and jetted in from the 10.
"These are plays we've had in since week one. They've shown up in big spots, as we saw tonight," Guevara said. "Getting that was crucial for us and the defense was able to make that last stop."
L - Gavin Guy 43 pass from Jonah Guevara (Shane Pitts kick) 6:22 first quarter
RM - George Ramirez 18 pass from Hyrum Boren (Conner Gardener kick) 2:38 first quarter
L - Jace Accurso 8 run (Pitts kick) 6:17 second quarter
L - Carter Hill 69 pass from Guevara (Pitts kick) 1:45 second quarter
RM - Ramirez 39 pass from Boren (Gardener kick) 4:43 third quarter
L - Joe Forney 1 run (Pitts kick) 8:26 fourth quarter
RM - Ty McElroy 7 run (kick failed) 4:24 fourth quarter
RM - Jared Wilson 53 pass from Boren (Ramirez pass from Boren) :58 fourth quarter
L - Guevara 10 run (kick failed) Overtime