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Reed, Liberty set for state semifinal gridiron battle
by Dan Eckles
Nov 28, 2013 | 1433 views | 0 0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune photo by John Byrne - Reed High's senior signal caller, Chris Denn, gets set to fire a pass down the field during the RHS gridders' workout Wednesday night at Bishop Manogue H.S.
Tribune photo by John Byrne - Reed High's senior signal caller, Chris Denn, gets set to fire a pass down the field during the RHS gridders' workout Wednesday night at Bishop Manogue H.S.
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The Reed High football team finds itself in a familiar spot, Nevada's large-school state semifinals. It's the fourth time in five years the Raiders have advanced to this stage and the third time during that stretch they've faced a southern Nevada opponent.

Reed has only advanced to the state final once in that span -- 2011 when the North champion earned an automatic berth into the state final after winning its region. Reed has not beaten a southern Nevada foe in the postseason over the past decade, dropping all five of its chances.

Still, getting over that hurdle is not the top priority Reed football coach Ernie Howren said.

"We've only talked about winning this game as the next step in the progression to get to the state championship, but as far as us chasing some streak that we haven't attained, that's not important to me," Howren said. "Every year is a new year and that kind of thinking is not as important at this point in the season. Honestly, I don't think it (beating a southern Nevada opponent) adds more motivation to this game. This game is as important to our kids as any game we've played all season."

Beating a southern Nevada power may not be a high priority for Howren, but that's the opportunity his team has. Three-time defending North champion Reed (11-1) will meet Sunrise Region champion Liberty (10-3) Saturday at Bishop Manogue in a game set for a 1 p.m. kickoff.

Liberty, which has won four-straight Sunrise Region titles, comes into the postseason affair riding a nine-game winning streak. The Patriots started their fall campaign 1-3, but have not lost to an in-state foe. Liberty's three losses came to Salpointe Catholic of Tucson, Ariz. (48-7), Centennial of Corona, Calif. (60-42) and Hamilton of Chandler, Ariz (14-10).

While Liberty has downed all of its Silver State competitors, the Patriots have been tested. They got by Canyon Springs 24-21 in a regional semifinal two weeks ago and then bounced Green Valley 56-43 in the Sunrise final last weekend.

The Reed coaching staff may not be as familiar with Liberty's schemes and strategies as they'd be if they were facing a regional opponent, but they know why the Patriots are good.

"By far, this is the most athletic team we've seen all year," Howren said. "If you take them as a collective whole, there has not been a team we've played that has close to the athleticism that Liberty possesses. They're very fast, especially in the secondary, at wide receiver and running back. You couple that with the physicality they have in their offensive and defensive lines, that's why they've been so successful this season."

Rich Muraco is in his fifth season at the helm of the Liberty program and has seen the steady climb his Patriots program has made during his tenure. In 2010, Liberty made their first state semifinal appearance and lost a defensive battle at McQueen. He said that was a tough loss but one his program has grown from.

"That year we made it up to Reno and it was the first time our school had ever really had any major success in any sport," Muraco said. "We were super happy to be in that moment. Since, we've really changed our mentality. Now it's about what can we do to win a state championship. The kids have really bought into the philosophy of the program and what's expected of them. We're at a point now where we want to win a state championship and it would be disappointing to not get back to that game."

With that said, Muraco knows it will be no easy task to dispatch a motivated Reed team.

"I know Reed's a great program," Muraco said. "They've won three straight region championships and have a high-powered offense. I know their running back (Jordan de Leon) is the real deal, a powerful kid who runs the ball hard and that their quarterback (Chris Denn) does a good job throwing the ball.

"They remind me a lot of Green Valley down here. They run that hurry-up spread system and put a lot of points on the board. Their defense is sound, in the right position and their guys fly to the football. We know we have our hands full."

Conversely, Howren knows his Raiders had better be ready to compete at a high level as well. Liberty boasts starting quarterback Tyler Newman, one of the top signal callers in the state. Howren said he's impressed with Newman's ability to read defenses and lead a prolific passing attack. But then the RHS football coach said he's seen Liberty go into a 'power-I' running game and beat up on opponents that way as well.

"That's the thing about Liberty, they have such a balanced attack," Howren said. "They can spread you out and throw the ball around or they can go into an 'I' and play smash-mouth football. They're very good at both offenses."

Saturday's playoff affair was originally scheduled to be played at Reed, but an NIAA decision Monday to deem the RHS football field 'unsafe and unsuitable' saw the postseason contest shifted to a neutral site at Bishop Manogue. Reed officials were angered at the decision, but Howren said the time to be frustrated has passed. He said his team needed to let go of the anger Tuesday and focus only on beating Liberty.

"As coaches and players, we have to get over it," Howren said in an interview Monday night. "As frustrated as we were today, tomorrow we have to come in and everything must be about Liberty. They're such a good football team, we can't be carrying any mental baggage into this game."

Muraco said he only learned late Friday, after his team won its region title, that this weekend's state semifinal was originally scheduled to be played at Reed. He stressed that his team has a long bus ride so the final destination doesn't make too much difference.

"I didn't know the northern teams got the home game. At first, I questioned why it wasn't at a neutral site. But it doesn't really bother me," Muraco said. "We're traveling eight hours. Whether we play at Reed or somewhere else doesn't really matter.

"We know it's going to be a difficult challenge. We'll travel eight hours and not know much about the weather or a team from the North. It's hard to get a read on a team when there are no common opponents. That makes it a little nerve-racking, but our kids have an expectation to win."

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