It was dusk Tuesday, almost exactly 72 hours before the game of the year in local high school football, Liberty at Bishop Gorman for the 5A Southern Region championship.
Liberty’s assistant coaches were putting the Patriots through their practice paces ahead of Friday’s 6 p.m. showdown.
Salty language was being used, presumably to get the players’ attention.
Rich Muraco, Liberty’s head coach, was walking softly behind the offensive group as it worked on plays that he hopes will help his team pull off another stunning upset of one the best high school teams in the country. But he did not seem to be carrying a big stick.
He was wearing a red cap with an old English ‘L’ on front, shorts and a long-sleeve pullover — a concession to the 67-degree weather and proof that it has been a long time since he left Rochester, N.Y. He chuckled. Those back home would have found humor in the long sleeves.
“I try to stay calm,” Muraco said about delegating authority and strolling about the practice field as if it were an art gallery. “My assistants do a great job of coaching the kids; I don’t feel like I have to jump in there and get on them. I just try to oversee everything now. It really has helped my blood pressure.”
But as mentioned, it was only Tuesday.
Cream of the crop
If Bishop Gorman and Liberty were horses at the Kentucky Derby, they would be number 1 and 1A in the racing form. Gorman has been great for a long time, and before it was great, it was usually pretty good.
Muraco has been at Liberty since it opened in 2003, when the Patriots were neither great nor pretty good.
In fact, they were so bad in the program’s infancy that the Basic coaches took pity on them and said if Liberty continued to run a certain isolation play, they would make sure there would be an opening to run through when the Patriots got close to the end zone.
You should have seen how thrilled the Liberty kids were when they finally scored a touchdown, Muraco said.
The Patriots have had only two coaches. Lou Markouzis was 14-42 in six seasons. Muraco is 112-34 in his 12th. He has had a ton of success, but for a while it only went so far. In 2016, Liberty played Gorman in the state championship game and lost 84-8.
But when the teams met in the playoffs two years ago, Liberty shook up the local high school football world.
By defeating the Gaels 30-24 in overtime, the Patriots did the unthinkable. It was Gorman’s first loss to a Nevada opponent in 11 seasons and halted the Gaels’ run of 10 consecutive state championships.
Beware the ‘G’
“I think early in the rivalry, they were definitely the bigger and stronger team. But since then we’ve done a great job in the weight room,” Muraco said in praising Liberty’s strength coach Cory Anderson. “I think we’ve narrowed the gap or even leveled that aspect of the game.
“So now it’s definitely mental. You can’t get caught up in the ‘G’ on the side of their helmets.”
When you get caught up in the G, it usually results in a TD for the team in blue and orange, or whatever color scheme Gorman is sporting on that particular night.
Liberty is 10-1 this season. Its only defeat was 49-7 against Mater Dei of California, the nation’s top-ranked high school team, in a September game also played at Bishop Gorman.
It was 7-7 early in the second quarter. It was 42-7 at halftime.
Liberty might not have gotten caught up in the Michigan Wolverine-inspired stripes on Mater Dei’s helmets. But it had three punting game breakdowns before halftime — the kind of mistakes Muraco said it can ill afford against a Gorman side that is nearly as big, strong, fast, talented, deep and steeped in as much mystique as Mater Dei.
But “this is where we want to be,” Muraco said about playing Gorman with a state championship berth on the line.
He said the Liberty players and community were excited about getting another opportunity to shake up the world. And he said he was excited, too, although it was only Tuesday and you couldn’t really tell.
Who: Liberty (10-1) at Bishop Gorman (10-1)
What: NIAA Class 5A Southern Region championship game
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Fertitta Field at Bishop Gorman
TV: NFHS Network (https://www.nfhsnetwork.com, by streaming subscription only)