WEST VALLEY PREPS

Smith resigns from Liberty to coach alma mater in Washington

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Only one job could pull Mark Smith away from coaching Liberty football and it just opened up two weeks ago.

Earlier this week, Smith resigned as the Lions coach so he could accept the head coaching job at Shelton High School, his alma mater. The school is in a small town of the same name on the very western edge of the Puget Sound.

"That's where I graduated from and that's where we won the 1985 state title in the Kingdome," Smith said.

Smith, reached via phone from Washington - where he is being introduced as the new coach, said his friend and former teammate Mike Speaks had coached the Highclimbers the past two years.

Speaks worked off campus and told Smith he felt like he could not put in adequate time to build the program back up.

"My friend said he can't take it any further. I put in for it," Smith said. "I'm coming home and Washington is a beautiful state. I've got a ton of family and friends in the area."

The pull of home was the only thing that could get Smith to consider leaving Liberty after coaching the program to its first title. He has spend about two decades coaching in the Valley, leading the Glendale, Millennium and Moon Valley before arriving at Liberty as defensive coordinator in 2012.

After three seasons in that role, he replaced Dan Filleman when the school's founding coach left for the Regis Jesuit job in metro Denver. Ironically, Filleman left months after the school's first appearance in a state final in 2014.

In five seasons as head coach, Smith led the Lions to a 42-19 record and lifted the program into one capable of hanging with the best in the state. His first season, after virtually no spring ball, was the Lions' first foray into the big school division in a one-year-only 17-team Division I.

Liberty started 0-5, but finished section play 4-1 and tied for a section title. The turnaround included the program's first win against Centennial.

Two years later, the Lions knocked off a nationally-ranked Coyotes team 21-19 to end the regular season and pushed Centennial to the brink before losing 42-37 in an epic 5A semifinal. Liberty moved up to 6A in 2018 and finished 10-2.

What turned out to be Smith's final season was somewhat similar to his first. Liberty was bent on reaching the eight-team open division, but saw those hopes dashed by a 5-3 start.

While the 6A playoff field lost four teams to the open division, top level teams like Mesa Red Mountain, Gilbert Perry, Gilbert Highland and Phoenix Desert Vista remained.

No. 7 seed Liberty started to roll and knocked off Desert Vista 33-30 in Ahwatukee to reach the finals. Then on Dec. 6 Liberty beat top seed Red Mountain 34-28 in overtime at Sun Devil Stadium to take home its first big gold ball.

"I had it really good at Liberty. It's a premiere job in the state," Smith said.

Smith said he talked to the players earlier this week before heading to Washington and will finish the semester at Liberty.

It is a unique situation in North Peoria, and Smith said he will miss it.

"The big thing I want to say to everybody is thank you. The community and administation is verry supportive and responsive. They have given us everything we could possibly want, including traveling out of state," Smith said.

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