No. 7 Liberty held off a comeback attempt by No. 6 Phoenix Desert Vista 33-30 Friday night to earn a trip to the 6A final and a shot at the school’s first state championship.
It’s the second trip to a state final for Liberty (9-4), the first was a loss in the 5A finals in 2014, and it’s the first championship appearance under coach Mark Smith, who took over in 2015. The Lions will take on No. 1 Red Mountain (12-1) at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6 at Red Mountain.
“The mentality doesn’t change for us,” said Liberty senior quarterback Jonah Guevara about the championship game. “We have the same set of rules, same set of values, and we’re going to keep on doing things the same way.”
Liberty had a commanding 33-14 lead entering the fourth quarter Friday night, but saw that 17-point margin shrink to 3 after Desert Vista (9-4) scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, converting the two-point conversion on each.
Desert Vista couldn’t recover its onside kick with three minutes left and the Liberty run game was able to move the chains twice to run out the clock and secure the win.
Guevara led the Lions with three touchdowns through the air and two on the ground. He completed 11 of 15 passes for 229 yards. The stalwarts in the backfield were freshman running back Zaccheus Cooper, who ran for 83 yards on 10 carries, and senior Joseph Forney, who had 69 yards on 10 carries. Cooper added 44 yards on two receptions. Forney had one catch for 10 yards.
The Lions’ damage came early, as they found the end zone on their first five drives. The offense stalled a bit from there, and some bad breaks put the Thunder in Lions’ territory to start their final three drives of the game.
In the third quarter, Liberty junior Shane Pitts had his field goal attempt blocked, returned for 15 yards and another 30 penalty yards were tacked on due to a dead ball penalty and a sideline violation on Liberty. The Lions’ D stood tall though, forcing a turnover on downs after the Thunder drive started at the Liberty 32-yard line.
Liberty punted on its next drive, starting Desert Vista’s drive at the Lions’ 48-yard line, resulting in a score that cut Liberty’s lead to 11. The Lions’ next punt went wildly awry when the snap came before senior punter Jace Accurso was expecting it, flying past him for what would be a 32-yard loss after Accurso recovered the fumble. It set Thunder up at the Lions’ 28-yard line for a drive that would cut the lead to 3 but would end up being the last time they touched the ball.
Liberty coach Mark Smith called the late-game mistakes “sloppy.”
“It was just some things that are uncharacteristic,” he said. “…“We can’t have those mistakes in the championship game because we’ve got to play really good football.”
Desert Vista could have taken the lead there had senior quarterback Parker Navarro not fumbled at the goal line earlier in the half. The play didn’t seem entirely consequential at the time — it would have cut Liberty’s lead to 33-20, extra point pending — but with the Thunder’s fourth-quarter comeback, the strip ended up being the difference in the game. Pitts recovered the fumble in the end zone.
Navarro completed 22 of 29 passes for 230 yards. He threw one touchdown one interception, courtesy of Liberty senior Chase Puchta on a deep pass in the first quarter.
Senior linebacker Isaiah Pittman seemed to be everywhere on defense, leading the team in tackles, including a sack. Senior linebacker Josh Filby had two sacks, sophomore defensive back Jax Stam and Accurso, a linebacker, each had one.
Guevara’s three passing touchdowns came on long strikes in the first half to junior Cailin Knapp, for 33 yards, senior Gavin Guy, for 29 yards, and senior Carter Hill for 23 yards. The latter two were wide open because of blown coverages from Desert Vista. After the game, Guevara said they pushed the tempo early because they’d seen the Thunder struggle defending fast-paced offenses on tape.
Hill led the Lions in receiving yards with 68 on two catches, followed by Guy and Knapp with 59 and 48 yards, respectively, on three grabs apiece. Knapp also had an 11-yard run.
Desert Vista coach Dan Hinds said commended his team for not counting themselves out when facing a 19-point deficit late.
“I was really proud of them for not giving up,” he said. “You know, most teams would have folded at that point where we were down by that much, but our team didn’t, and I’m really proud of them. That’s kind of how they’ve been all year long.”
Liberty’s road to the final was unconventional, posting its worst regular-season record since 2016, but Coach Smith said the team’s four regular-season losses “really bred a lot of character” among his players and helped the team understand its strengths and weaknesses.
The Lions’ now have two weeks to prepare for one-loss Red Mountain.
“We’ll put a game plan together, and it’s going to take a lot of guts and grit and grind and focus and determination,” Smith said. “You know, it’s going to take Code Red. And Code Red for us is toughness, discipline, leadership, commitment and composure. That’s our code that we go by. So, we got to get better at some of those, but at the end of the night, it’s about having one more point than the other team.”