Liberty High School sports are on a roll, coming off of the strong season from the football team in the 2022 season. The basketball program is following suit, jumping out to a strong start in the 6A conference. The Lions are off to a blazing 11-2 start, and have looked dominant while doing so, inspiring what could be a special season in 2022-23.
“We returned almost everybody from a really good team last year,” Head Coach Mark Wood said. “We have eight seniors, all leaders who have a sense of urgency, a real close chemistry, a super high level of intelligence and toughness.”
The cohesiveness of the experienced squad has netted solid results early on in the year, repeating the success they saw last year. Coming off a year where the Lions were second in the nation in scoring, the expectations were high to compete in the newly-added Open Division playoffs.
Liberty is anchored by senior forward Caden Hunter, who averages a double-double per game, putting up 20 points and 10 rebounds per contest. There is no true star of the squad though, as the depth allows for the Lions to have experienced players on the floor at all times which gives them the best chance to win in any given tilt.
“We have to win multiple different ways, that's what we've been working on,” Wood said. “We feel like we can win slow, we feel like we can win fast. We'd like to play fast, but we'll win however you want to do it. It's kind of the way we're looking at it.”
The schedule for the Lions hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies. They have had to go against some of the tougher teams in the state through the opening stretch.
To start the year they rattled off four straight wins against Scottsdale Chaparral, Surprise Willow Canyon, Glendale Apollo and Phoenix Christian, the majority of which being double-digit victories. They outscored opponents by nearly 100 points, 343-246, during that stretch.
The Lions were then tested by the Arizona juggernaut, Gilbert Perry, the reigning state champions, in a battle that ended with Liberty falling short 93-79. The score may look like a lopsided Perry victory, but that could not be further from the truth.
“We were up (by) one, with four and a half minutes left,” Wood said. “Then there were four consecutive possessions where we found ourselves all of a sudden down nine.
“But when you play teams of that caliber, those mistakes are punished. And to their credit, they punished our mistakes. You know, they weren't big mistakes, they weren't mistakes that would get punished otherwise, but they did.”
Liberty hasn’t let that derail their season though, as they picked themselves right back up to the tune of five straight wins. They took care of teams like the state champion runners up, Chandler Hamilton, and Phoenix Sunnyslope, the 2021 6A State playoff’s No. 1 seed who were recently added into the Lions’ region. Other teams included Sunrise Mountain, Surprise Shadow Ridge and Mesa Mountain Ridge.
“Just how to be more focused and disciplined, and tough and resilient,” Wood said of how his team rebounded to the Perry loss.
“Really what we learned is that we are not afraid of anybody. A lot of the guys did not take that floor like they were outmatched. They took that floor like they were in it to win it and thought that they should. The confidence that they have earned through their hard work and sacrifice. We know we can compete at a very high level.”
Moving into region play, Liberty has a tough schedule ahead, facing teams like Sunnyslope again, and Phoenix Pinnacle, Anthem Boulder Creek and Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor twice.
Wood feels this team has competed at the highest level and they can handle the spotlight if so put on them.
“(When the) lights are on, our dudes are dudes,” he said.
But with the experience of the team being battle tested from years prior and so far this current season, Wood maintains that this team has as good a chance as any to compete, and possibly win the Open Division Championship.
“We know we can,” Wood said. “There are a lot of teams that can beat us and we think we can beat anyone. We know it's going to be a tall task. And we're up for the challenge.”