The Liberty Lions, with an electric 33-30 win over Desert Vista on Friday night, have a chance to capture their first-ever football title on December 6.
They came startlingly close to blowing a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter, but the Lions ran out the clock up three, and celebrated a berth in the 2019 AIA State 6A Football Championship.
“We’re going to put a plan together in the next couple weeks, and we’re going to enjoy this one tonight,” said coach Mark Smith.
The championship game will be Smith’s first as head coach. The Lions reached this point in 2014, while Smith was the defensive coordinator.
With a 9-4 record, including losses in three of its final five regular season games – two by less than a touchdown – Liberty has had several ups and downs in 2019. With over 40 seniors on the roster, one of the oldest rosters in the state has a chance to right the ship in the best way.
“We’ve had our fair share of struggles, and we’re coming together at the right time. But we have trust in each other, our faith in each other, and the coaches as well. It’s just come together at the right time,” said senior quarterback Jonah Guevara.
On the other sideline will be the No. 1 Red Mountain, which went 12-1 this season and many believed should have been placed in the newly-formed Open Division playoffs.
Smith said he has little knowledge of the Mountain Lions. He was impressed, though, by what little he saw of them in preseason. Though excited, he said the championship game will surely be a battle.
“I remember watching the scrimmage (between) Brophy, Pinnacle and Red Mountain. We were playing Brophy (Week 1) and so I saw some of them on film. And I said, ‘Man, that’s a good-looking football team right there,’ and it turned out to be a great season, and they deserved to get into that game, but I think it’s going to be worthy teams going at it.”
The Lions were not the only Peoria team to play in a conference semifinal game. The Cobras entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed, boasting an 8-2 record. They dispatched Tempe and rival Peoria High by double-digit margins before falling to Mesquite on Friday.
Cactus lost 28-27 to the Wildcats, coming up inches short on a two-point conversion in the final seconds that would have won the game.
For a team with just 12 seniors, still finding its identity under a new coaching staff, the Cobras were proud, despite the loss, of their season’s accomplishments.
“For my second year being the coach here, the transition, making it to the semifinals is a great start for our program. We exceeded expectations, but were just one point short,” said Cactus coach Joseph Ortiz.
Cactus will return quality players at several positions. The cobras will likely be a contender in the 4A conference for seasons to come.
“I’m ready to get back to work right now,” Ortiz said of the Cobras, who finished 2019 at 10-3.
“We’re sitting good over at Cactus.”
Other PUSD football records:
Centennial – 9-2, lost quarterfinal round of Open Division playoffs
Ironwood – 6-5, lost first round of 5A playoffs
Peoria – 9-3, lost quarterfinal round of 4A playoffs
Raymond S. Kellis – 1-9
Sunrise Mountain – 8-4, lost quarterfinal round of 5A playoffs
Peoria Times contributor Brittany Bowyer assisted in the reporting of this story.