GLENDALE — For the past three seasons, the Liberty Lions felt the sting of a trio of devastating playoff losses in the Open Division semifinals.
On Saturday night, it took just a few minutes for all those tough defeats to become a distant memory.
Excelling in all three phases of the game — offense, defense and special teams — Liberty raced out to a quick four-score lead on their way to a dominating 54-12 victory over the Highland Hawks in an Open Division semifinal playoff at Mountain Ridge High School.
“Honestly, it feels really good,” Liberty Head Coach Colin Thomas said after the big win. “We’ve been working hard for a long time — we’ve had successful seasons but we’ve stumbled at this point. But it all came together tonight and it was a great overall team performance.”
Liberty senior quarterback Navi Bruzon, who accounted for 5 scores in the 42-point blowout, said his team was hyper-focused after an incredible week of practice.
“We played a great game in all phases,” he said. “The momentum was all on our side in the first half but we’ve fallen short here before — so it was important we kept our focus on the job at hand.”
Top-seeded Liberty (11-1), looking to erase the bitter taste of the past three playoff defeats, started fast and never looked back.
It took just 8 plays and less than 3 minutes before Bruzon opened the scoring with a 3-yard touchdown scramble.
Lions on the board on a 3 yard run by @navibruzon. PAT @hawkinsnathan_.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 26, 2023
#5 @athletics_hawks 0
#1 @LibertyFBLions 7
9:05 - 1st Quarter
Open Division Semifinal#WestValleyPreps pic.twitter.com/pkhoDebjfe
Nathan Hawkins kicked the PAT to give Liberty a 7-0 lead with 9:05 left in the first quarter.
“We were able to score right away and that didn’t allow them to hold the ball and play their style,” Thomas explained. “We were able to control the pace.”
With the Lions offense clicking early, the defense did their part soonafter as senior linebacker Keaton Stam intercepted a pass by Highland’s Kalen Fisher on the Hawks’ second play from scrimmage.
Stam returned the ball close to the red zone, setting the stage for Jon Wilson to plunge into the end zone from 1 yard out four plays later.
After a pick by @Keatonstam_8, Liberty RB @JonWayBetter32 scores from a yard out. 2-point conversion fails.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 26, 2023
#5 @athletics_hawks 0
#1 @LibertyFBLions 13
7:14 - 1st Quarter
Open Division Semifinal#WestValleyPreps pic.twitter.com/Zyuk3FKlAf
A 2-point conversion attempt failed but the Lions still held a 13-0 lead less than five minutes in.
“I knew we could dominate,” Stam said after the game. “Our game planning was precise and we executed that game plan really well.”
Highland, seeded #5 and coming off a win over Chandler in the Open quarters, looked shellshocked from the start. Things got worse for the Hawks after they punted back to Liberty a few minutes later.
This time, one of the most potent 1-2 punches in the state made their presence felt as Bruzon found Braylon Gardner for a 62-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline. Gardner easily beat his defender and Bruzon threw a perfect ball to the senior wideout. Gardner then sidestepped past the last Highland defender to complete the score.
Another failed 2-point conversion left Liberty up 19-0 at the 2:31 mark of the first quarter.
“There was a ton of game planning this week and Coach Thomas is a genius when it comes to that,” explained Bruzon, who has now accounted for 50 touchdowns this season. “We were ready.”
The Hawks again couldn’t move the ball and were forced again into punt formation. This time, the Liberty special teams got in on the act as Zane Tallman blasted through and blocked the Highland punt, scooped up the ball and raced into the end zone on the final play of the first quarter.
“The special teams touchdowns were huge for us,” Thomas said.
With a 26-0 lead after one quarter, the game was all but over.
Highland managed to get within three scores early in the second when Crew Crandall hauled in a 13-yard TD pass from Fisher.
The Lions were determined to pound the rock on the ground and turned to Wilson to get the job done. The senior running back along with receiver Ryan Jezioro led Liberty down the field and Bruzon finished the drive with a short TD dive.
Hawks get on the board on a 13-yard TD pass but Lions quickly move down the field and @navibruzon dives in from a couple yards out. @GardnerBraylon catches a 2-point pass.
#5 @athletics_hawks 6
#1 @LibertyFBLions 34
5:42 - 2nd Quarter
Open Division Semifinal#WestValleyPreps pic.twitter.com/MNZ249gyDo
— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 26, 2023
Gardner caught a 2-point pass and Liberty led 34-6 with 5:42 left before halftime.
After another Highland three-and-out, the Lions got tight end Ryan Wolfer involved on offense. He caught a couple passes from Bruzon before hauling in a 32-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline.
Liberty is letting out the frustrations of the last 3 years and the rout is on. @rwolfer44 hauls in a 32-yard TD pass from @navibruzon and @hawkinsnathan_ adds the PAT.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 26, 2023
#5 @athletics_hawks 6
#1 @LibertyFBLions 41
1:07 - 2nd Quarter
Open Division Semifinal#WestValleyPreps pic.twitter.com/GzJ0gpNoEx
Hawkins added the PAT and the rout was on as Liberty led 41-6 at the break.
Highland got a jolt early in the third quarter as running back Jay Martin exploded for a 75-yard TD run down the left sideline.
That score was canceled out by another Bruzon TD scramble — this time from 10 yards — and Liberty led 47-12 after three quarters.
The icing on the cake was Liberty’s second punt block of the night for a score — Owen Dalton blocked the Hawks punt and Jacob Dominguez grabbed the ball along the right sideline and scampered in for another special teams TD.
The celebration had begun on the Lions sideline and an overflow Liberty crowd was roaring its approval.
As the two-time defending 6A champions, Highland wanted a shot in the Open Division long before this season — but on this night, they met up with a laser-focused buzzsaw. Their season ended with a 9-3 record.
Liberty moves on to face a very familiar foe in the Open Finals — the crosstown rival Centennial Coyotes (11-1), who took out defending champion Basha 35-27 on Saturday to similarly advance to their first-ever Open Final. The two squads faced off at LHS in the last game of the regular season on Nov. 4, with Liberty claiming a 36-17 victory.
The Open championship game — an all-Peoria Unified School District affair — is set for 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2 at Mountain America Stadium in Tempe.
“It’s gonna be a dogfight,” Bruzon said of the upcoming matchup with rival Centennial. “They have a ton of talent. I’m excited to go up against them again. It is great to get past this point but we still have work to do.”
Bruzon’s coach concurred.
“We have had some hard losses here at this point,” Thomas said. “To advance to the finals is great but the job is not done.”