It’s a real quick trip. The Liberty football team flew in Wednesday and Thursday, will play at Mililani on Friday and then return home to Henderson, Nev., on Sunday night.
“Any time you travel as a high school kid, it can be difficult because you have a lot of distractions,” coach Rich Muraco said Thursday at Kapiolani Regional Park during a walk-through. “Getting everybody dialed in and focused can be a little bit of a challenge. But we’ve been doing this for a number of years now and we as coaches know what some of the pitfalls are.”
The Patriots appeared loose Thursday. Some players arrived earlier that morning, others the day before.
If Friday’s 7 p.m. game is anywhere near as exciting as it was when Liberty hosted Mililani in 2015 and defeated the Trojans 76-53, then fans here are in for a real treat. Also on Friday, the Patriots’ nemesis in the Las Vegas area — Bishop Gorman — plays against Saint Louis at Aloha Stadium. Both games, even though they are at different sites, are part of the Aloha Football Classic.
To put it a slightly different way — No. 1 in Nevada (Bishop Gorman) is facing No. 1 in Hawaii (Saint Louis), and No. 2 in Nevada (Liberty) is going against No. 2 in Hawaii (Mililani).
“We feel like our program is headed in the right direction,” Muraco said. “We’ve been arguably the second-best team in Nevada for four or five years. This is why we take these kinds of challenges on. We want our kids to face adversity and be challenged and hopefully it’ll pay off when we play in the playoffs or when we see Gorman later in the year.”
Ray Brewer, in an article in the Las Vegas Sun, wrote that Liberty’s best shot to beat Bishop Gorman is perhaps this season. A year ago, the Gaels won 42-28 in the state playoffs. According to Brewer, the Patriots’ depth is one of their strengths.
“I love this team,” Muraco said about his Liberty squad. “I love our whole attitude. They’re all great kids and with no behavior issues with anybody. We’ve had a great turnout all year in the weight room and summer football. They seem to be more focused than in the past. We do have a lot of depth, some high-end players and some (role players).”
Moliki Matavao is one of the high-end Patriots. He is a tight end with 35 Division I college offers.
“Alabama, Michigan, Penn State, Texas, the whole Pac-12,” Murcaco said. “He is a matchup problem for a lot of teams. And he’s athletic for his size (6 feet 6). We flank him out at receiver sometimes.”
Running back Zyrus Fiaseu and linebacker Zephaniah Maea are among the other team leaders, along with quarterback Kanyon Stoneking.
“Zyrus is our best running back and overall our best player,” Muraco said. “In national games, we play him a little more on defense because the defense needs him. If the offense is struggling, he’s going to get his touches.”
Lonenoa Faoa, a former Kapolei player and a starter at QB for the Patriots last year before an ACL and meniscus injury, is backing up Stoneking, who threw 43 passes for 301 yards in the team’s 31-17 home loss to Chandler (Ariz.) last Friday.
The team’s crazy-good national schedule continues after the Mililani game, when the Patriots play powerhouses St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) and Centennial (Corona, Calif.) and another Liberty (Peoria, Ariz.) before starting league play.
Although Liberty was pass happy against Chandler, it wants to be balanced. Either way, the defense of Mililani (3-0, 3-0 OIA Open) promises to be a gnarly obstacle.
“They have absolute studs on defense,” Murcao said about the Trojans. “I’m super impressed. They have five linebackers who are all legit and they bring a lot of pressure. Protecting the quarterback so he can make his reads and make good throws is going to be important. They blitz a lot and they fly to the ball, so it’s going to be a physical, good game, for sure.”
Bam Amina, who played for both Kapolei and Bishop Gorman before transferring to Mililani, Muelu Iosefa and Wynden Hoohuli are among those Trojans at linebacker.
Liberty’s power running — with double tight ends and three running backs — got it done when the Patriots beat Mililani in 2015.
“McKenzie Milton was amazing,” Muraco said about that game. “We could not stop him. Luckily, they weren’t able to stop us. It was a crazy game. We had flown to Hawaii the week before and lost to Saint Louis and Tua Tagovailoa. It was an eye-opener for us. There were a lot of people who thought we might get beat because they thought Mililani might be the stronger team. We ended up kind of surprising some people.”
Aside from Faoa, there are a ton of Hawaii connections at Liberty:
>> Defensive coordinator Kaipo Batoon, a former Saint Louis player, is the brother of University of Hawaii defensive coordinator Corey Batoon.
>> Offensive coordinator Chad Kapanui is a former UH star linebacker who played quarterback for Roosevelt.
>> Defensive back Ikalewa Paaoao played wide receiver for Saint Louis last year.
>> Defensive backs coach Justin Clark played wide receiver and defensive back for Honokaa.
>> According to Kapanui and Clark, there are other players with Hawaii connections on the roster, but they couldn’t think of any others who played here in high school.
“We have a pretty close relationship with the University of Hawaii staff and it’s special to have that,” Muraco said. “Kaipo and his brother Corey, and Kapanui is tight with (UH passing game coordinator Craig) Stutzmann, so we hang out with them when they come to Vegas. They’ve offered several of our kids.
“There’s a lot of personal pride here. We want to play the best in Hawaii and do well. We don’t want to come over and take an ‘L.’ We want to come over and represent Nevada with a win. We treat it as a business trip and love coming here. We can’t do it every year because of the expense, but we can every three or four years.”