GLENDALE — It was a case of déjà vu in the worst way for the Liberty Lions on Saturday night.
For the second straight postseason, the Lions watched their opponent make every critical play down the stretch — and get a little assistance from game officials — as the Saguaro Sabercats walked away with a wild 43-42 victory in an Open Division semifinal playoff at Mountain Ridge High School.
“We had them on the ropes and they came back and made the plays to win,” said Liberty Head Coach Colin Thomas, whose team lost for the first time in 2022 after reeling off 11 straight dominant wins. “Credit to Saguaro. Devon Dampier is one heck of a football player and he made play after play after play.”
Dampier, Saguaro’s do-it-all senior quarterback, put on a “tour de force” performance with the season on the line, making all the big plays in the final stanza to lead his team back to the same place where they won the Open championship one year ago.
“Being a senior this year, I have younger guys looking up to me. I kept telling them not to get caught up in the moment — move on to the next play,” Dampier said after the game. “Every fourth down, I told them just to get open — I got y’all.”
Saguaro Head Coach Jason Mohns had supreme confidence in his signal caller, even with his squad down two scores in the fourth quarter.
“If I can pick any player in the state to roll with, I am rolling with Devon,” said Mohns. “He’s an unbelievable competitor and he makes every single player on our team better. If there is time on the clock and the ball is in #4’s hands, we have a chance.”
Early in the fourth, it appeared top-seeded Liberty was on track for its first-ever berth in the Open title game. A pick 6 gave the Lions all the momentum and a 42-28 lead with just 11 minutes left in the contest.
That’s when Dampier took over.
He quickly led Saguaro inside Liberty territory before lofting a 47-yard touchdown pass to JoJo Clark that had Liberty players, coaches and fans in disbelief. Those wearing red and black believe Clark grabbed the Liberty defender and tossed him away, allowing for an easy touchdown catch.
There was no penalty flag. Alan Hall kicked the PAT and Saguaro trailed 42-35 with 8:50 left in the game.
“It is what it is,” Thomas explained. “We thought it was offensive pass interference but they didn’t call it so that’s it.”
Needing a clock-eating drive, Liberty couldn’t get it done as the Sabercats’ defense batted down a pass attempt by Liberty quarterback Navi Bruzon on third down. Braylon Gardner handled a high snap and left-footed a punt that died at the Sagauro 6 yard line.
Dampier quickly hit Clark with a 14-yard pass. Dampier then found Chris Nimcheski for 28 yards to the Liberty 25 on 4th and 11. Later, facing 4th and 8, Dampier lofted a picture-perfect 23-yard TD pass to Mason Whitaker on the right side:
The 15-play, 94-yard drive cut the Liberty lead to 42-41 with 1:02 left on the clock.
After the score, Dampier went to the sidelines but quickly realized that Saguaro wanted to go for 2 to take the lead.
Again, Dampier was calm under pressure and found Zaccheus Cooper with the pass to give the Sabercats a 43-42 lead:
Then Dampier hits Cooper for 2 points to take a 43-42 lead with a minute left… pic.twitter.com/A67CcifCAg— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) December 4, 2022
Mohns said there was never a doubt his team would go for 2 in that situation.
“We knew we were doing it,” said Mohns, whose fifth-seeded Sabercats avenged a 26-17 regular season loss to Liberty on Sept. 30. “We put that play in on Tuesday to use if we had a chance to win the game. I’m just really proud of these kids tonight — they never quit.”
Dampier was pleased that Saguaro didn’t call the play earlier in the game.
“We saved that play for when we needed it most and it worked out perfectly,” he said.
The Liberty head coach tipped his cap to the defending champs.
“They had to go like 95 yards and our defense has been rock solid all year,” Thomas said. “We trusted them in that situation. But in the end, you have to credit Saguaro.”
Liberty still had a minute left to move down the field and with an excellent kicker in Nathan Hawkins, a possible chance to win the game at the final gun.
The Lions quickly moved the ball to near midfield before Bruzon rifled a pass down the field that was deflected and intercepted by Saguaro’s Carlos Griffin. The Sabercats began their celebration and just like that, Liberty’s perfect season and quest for an Open title was gone.
This one perhaps stings more than in 2021 when the Lions were dealt a similar fate at Chandler. This season, Liberty had steamrolled opponents in rolling to an 11-0 record and a #14 national ranking according to MaxPreps. Similar to a year ago, most Liberty players were too distraught to even speak after the game. One player kept yelling “this was OUR year!” as he was being consoled by Liberty coaches.
Early in the game, Liberty was out of sorts — committing four penalties in the first two minutes.
“I thought we were jumpy early but we cleaned it up as the game went on,” Thomas explained.
Saguaro struck first as Dampier found Dajon Hinton with a 3-yard TD pass:
Sabercats strike first on a 4th down, 3-yard TD pass from @Devonddampier to Dajon Hinton. PAT good by Alan Hall.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) December 4, 2022
#5 @Saguaro_HS 7
#1 @LibertyFBLions 0
3:38 - 1st Quarter
Open Semifinal#WestValleyPreps #AZNEWSMEDIA pic.twitter.com/OOeXZOsn4U
Hall kicked the PAT to make it 7-0.
The Lions quickly responded with a drive capped by a 1-yard scramble by Bruzon:
Big receptions by @PrinceZombo2 and @brunelle_grant lead to this 1-yard TD dive by @navibruzon. PAT good by @hawkinsnathan_.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) December 4, 2022
#5 @Saguaro_HS 7
#1 @LibertyFBLions 7
1:16 - 1st Quarter
Open Semifinal#WestValleyPreps #AZNEWSMEDIA pic.twitter.com/zXGAmuqcxV
Hawkins’ PAT made it 7-7 with 1:16 left in the first quarter.
Liberty flipped the momentum when the ensuing kickoff by Hawkins was fumbled by Saguaro and recovered by the Lions’ Ryder McMillon.
Liberty would cash in the Sabercats’ miscue as defensive standout Anthony Ruiz entered at running back and bulled over the goal line from 8 yards away. Hawkins’ kick gave Liberty a 14-7 lead early in the second.
Dampier quickly got the game level again, breaking tackles and navigating his way to a 46-yard TD run.
Bruzon lost a fumble on the ensuing drive and Sagauro took advantage as Cooper darted around the end for a 5-yard score to put the Sabercats back on top with 3:12 left before halftime:
After a questionable spot gives the Cats a first down on 4th and 3, Saguaro RB Zaccheus Cooper rushes left for a 5-yard TD. Hall PAT good.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) December 4, 2022
#5 @Saguaro_HS 21
#1 @LibertyFBLions 14
3:12 - 2nd Quarter
Open Semifinal#WestValleyPreps #AZNEWSMEDIA pic.twitter.com/6ySkeP94Df
Trailing again by 7, Liberty showed its mettle with a scoring drive just before the break. Grant Brunelle hauled in a key 55-yard reception, leading to a 4-yard run by Bruzon:
Liberty’s @brunelle_grant makes a 55-yard catch and @navibruzon takes the pile over the goal line on 4th down from 4 yards out. Crucial tying score with :23 left. Hawkins PAT good.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) December 4, 2022
#5 @Saguaro_HS 21
#1 @LibertyFBLions 21
Open Semifinal#WestValleyPreps #AZNEWSMEDIA pic.twitter.com/cQkN5tJLnF
Hawkins’ PAT tied the score 21-21 at halftime.
The teams kept up the scoring in the third quarter, setting the stage for the memorable final stanza.
Liberty took advantage of a stop and a poor punt early on. Bruzon then scored his third rushing TD of the game, this time from 7 yards away:
Lions D gets a stop and the offense cashes in. @navibruzon with his third rushing TD tonight - this one from 7 yards out. Hawkins PAT good.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) December 4, 2022
#5 @Saguaro_HS 21
#1 @LibertyFBLions 28
8:26 - 3rd Quarter
Open Semifinal#WestValleyPreps #AZNEWSMEDIA pic.twitter.com/VqVpMmCiP9
Liberty led 28-21 at the 8:26 mark of the third but Saguaro countered with a 90-plus yard drive culminating with a 5-yard pass from Dampier to Clark:
We have a barnburner as Saguaro completes a 95-yard drive with a 5-yard TD pass from @Devonddampier to Joseph Clark. Hall PAT good.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) December 4, 2022
#5 @Saguaro_HS 28
#1 @LibertyFBLions 28
4:28 - 3rd Quarter
Open Semifinal#WestValleyPreps #AZNEWSMEDIA pic.twitter.com/en1XSJ4M72
Tied at 28-28 late in the third, the see-saw affair continued when Liberty’s Raneill Calvin scored on a 10-yard jet sweep run:
Barely over a minute later Liberty responds as @Raneillcalvin scores on a 10-yard jet sweep. Hawkins PAT good.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) December 4, 2022
#5 @Saguaro_HS 28
#1 @LibertyFBLions 35
3:01 - 3rd Quarter
Open Semifinal#WestValleyPreps #AZNEWSMEDIA pic.twitter.com/7GYgI6GHJL
Hawkins made it 35-28 with 3:01 left in the third.
The Lions’ D appeared to make the play of the game one minute into the fourth quarter. Dampier lofted a pass over the middle for Jaedon Matthews but Liberty’s Wesley Grim easily intercepted the ball and scampered 65 yards the other way for a massive pick 6.
Liberty’s overflow crowd was celebrating a 42-28 lead but Dampier later proved the game was far from over.
A true dual-threat QB, Dampier showed off his running skills in the first half with nearly 120 yards on the ground. But when his team needed it most, he got it going in the air with 234 yards passing and two passing scores in the second half.
“I had so much time today. Shout-out to my offensive line,” Dampier said. “Liberty has a great defense but they kept them away from me.”
Saguaro (9-3), defending Open Division champions, move on to face #2 Basha (11-1) on Saturday, Dec. 10 at Sun Devil Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m.
“Basha is a great team,” Dampier said. “I’ve never faced them before so I am looking forward to it.”
Liberty (11-1) is again left wondering what they have to do to get “over the hump” in the Open Division playoffs. They won the 6A state title in 2019 but the last three playoff defeats — all in the Open semfinals — have been tough to take. First it was a 35-34 overtime loss to Chandler in 2020 as heavy underdogs followed by a 27-21 overtime loss to those same Wolves in 2021 in a game marked by controversy near the end. Saturday night’s game added to the heartbreak.
“We are one of the elites. We will keep striving to get over this hump,” Thomas said. “All I can say to my kids is thank you. This was the best football team Liberty has ever had.”