Before their crowning achievment on Saturday evening at ASU’s Mountain America Stadium, the current Liberty Lions senior class faced more than their fair share of adversity on the football gridiron.
A select few were part of the 2020-21 squad that nearly pulled a massive upset before falling to heavily-favored Chandler 35-34 in overtime in the Open Division semifinals.
More of the current seniors suffered through another gut-punch semifinal playoff loss to Chandler, this time in 2021-22 — a 27-21 OT defeat where a late lead slipped away thanks to some miraculous plays by the Wolves and a handful of highly questionable officiating calls.
Just last season, another fourth-quarter advantage in the Open semifinals vanished in heartbreaking fashion at the hands of Saguaro.
These 2023-24 Liberty seniors were determined to write a new chapter — and following a monumental 33-21 win over region and crosstown rival Centennial in the Open Division title game — their legacy is secure.
They are the kings of Arizona and one of the best high school football teams in state history.
“This just feels amazing,” an emotional senior linebacker Keaton Stam said following the victory. “All the hard work we put in has paid off. These seniors are my brothers so to win it with them, there’s no better way to go out.”
Liberty Head Coach Colin Thomas was still taking in the moment on the field at Mountain America Stadium long after his squad had won its first Open championship and Liberty’s second overall football title.
“Our program is built on hard work, toughness and discipline and these seniors led the way,” Thomas noted. “This was not an easy game by any means and although we haven’t been behind much this season, that doesn’t mean we couldn’t handle it. I’ll remember this senior class forever — I could not be more proud of them.”
Senior quarterback Navi Bruzon, the reigning state player of the year and a strong contender to win the award for a second time after tallying 53 total touchdowns in 2023, was confident things would be different this time around.
“We came up short the past three years and we were determined not to feel that feeling again,” Bruzon said. “Honestly, this is unreal. I love these guys and I’m so happy to get this championship with them.”
Senior wide receiver Ryan Jezioro, who battled injuries throughout this season, stepped up big time on the biggest stage. Jezioro caught two touchdown passes in the championship game and said Saturday is a night he will never forget.
“This game was something special for me,” Jezioro explained. “I’ll remember this the rest of my life — we put in a ton of hard work and there’s a lot of emotions right now — but we finally got the job done and we proved we are #1.”
Even as Centennial jumped out to a 14-6 lead in the second quarter, the senior Lions saw their entire squad had an unshakeable belief they would come back to win.
“We haven’t been in that spot much at all, but there was no panic,” Jezioro explained. “We persevered and finished strong.”
Senior linebacker Zane Tallman blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown in a massive win over Highland in the state semifinals. In the title game, he recovered another loose ball when sophomore Cannon Garday blocked a Centennial punt to totally shift the momentum.
“We always preach the importance of special teams and it really showed up the last two games,” Tallman said. “For the seniors, it came down to love and brotherhood and there’s nothing I love more than this team — we’re champions.”
Not all the newly-minted champion seniors have been in Arizona the past four years.
One senior newcomer — running back Jon Wilson — transferred in from Las Vegas and gave Liberty a legit gamebreaker in the backfield. He scored two touchdowns in the title win and closed the season with more than 1,200 yards rushing and 17 rushing TDs.
Wilson’s rushing numbers all season were enhanced by the play of offensive lineman Kaden Haeckel, who provided more than a few pancake blocks as well as leadership as the only senior starter on Liberty’s O-line.
Wideout Braylon Gardner fought off injury to be one of the state's best, recording more than 50 receptions, nearly 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns in 11 games played. Fellow receiver Chris McKivitz added more than 40 catches for about 650 yards and 7 scores while also serving as a threat on punt returns. Tight end Ryan Wolfer became a reliable target as the year went on.
Kicker Nathan Hawkins converted 63 of 70 PATs in addition to making 3 field goals in 13 games.
Defensively, Stam recorded more than 100 tackles, 8.5 sacks and a pair of INTs during his senior campaign. Tallman made more than 80 total tackles along with 4 sacks and 2 interceptions.
Led by the seniors, Liberty had a season that will live in Arizona prep football lore.
No team in the state came close to beating Liberty this season — the Lions’ lone blemish on a 12-1 campaign was a 42-35 setback to nationally-ranked Corona Centennial in California. Liberty averaged 46.4 points per game in 2023 while allowing just 13.5 PPG. The Lions, backed by overflow crowds at all their home games, beat all their in-state opponents by double digits.
Thomas also gave credit to his coaching staff for their efforts.
“They mean everything. We have a big staff that works their tails off,” the Liberty head coach said. “Everyone understands their role. I’m super proud of them because it takes a lot of work to be really good in football. I couldn’t be happier for my staff to get this thing done because they’re amazing.”
There are a total of 42 seniors listed on the latest Liberty roster and all of them, in some way, had a part in the team lifting the newly-designed Open Division title trophy on a magical night in Tempe.
“We battled for four years and our legacy is now set in stone,” Tallman said. “At the end of the day, these seniors are my brothers and this will bond us for life.”