Ray Brewer and Case Keefer try to look at Liberty vs. Centennial for the state championship from all angles and come out with the right winner.
The Liberty High football team lost its first five games of the season. One defeat was by 42 points; in another, the Patriots gave up 62.
That would be reason for concern for any coach. So, Rich Muraco got his staff together and made some adjustments — namely, Daniel Britt would become the full-time quarterback and some shifts would be made along the lines.
More important, there was no panic.
The matchups all came against a who's who of national opponents, and Liberty was willing to take its lumps against the out-of-town foes to have the experience needed to make a memorable playoff run.
Muraco knew his personnel — bluechip recruits at wide receiver and tight end, size and strength on both sides of the line, and an emerging dual-threat quarterback — was good enough to compete with every team left on the schedule.
That schedule is down to one opponent: Centennial at 12:10 p.m. Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium for the large-school state championship.
"Those losses were the best thing that could have happened," Muraco said. "If we would have played lesser teams, we wouldn't have (seen the need) to adjust the personnel."
This is Liberty's fourth appearance in the state finals, albeit under massively different circumstances. In 2012, 2015 and 2016, the Patriots had slim chances of beating perennial power Bishop Gorman, which was in the middle of its string of 10 straight state titles and three USA Today national No. 1 rankings.
Over the years, there was a growing sense among the Southern Nevada prep sports community that nobody would dethrone Gorman anytime soon, and that the state championship game would simply be a formality on the first Saturday of December each winter. The logic: Gorman would beat Liberty, Reed, Del Sol or whoever else advanced.
But Muraco didn't share that mindset. He never lost confidence in beating Gorman, always lifting his players' spirits after defeats that ended their seasons, and getting them refocused on the next year.
That dedication was rewarded two weeks ago. Liberty erased a 14-point halftime deficit against Gorman in the Desert Region championship game, limited the Gaels to a handful of second-half passing yards, and rallied for an unlikely 30-24 overtime win.
But it wasn't the end of the season. Liberty still had two more games to win, and one-loss Centennial, whose defense holds opponents to 13 points per game, will provide a significant challenge.
Yes, the Patriots' offense is strong, with Britt completing 80% of his passes and 19 touchdowns afgainst only one interception in 152 attempts. And yes, the Patriots have a stable of talented underclassmen with major scholarship offers, such as junior running back Zyrus Fiaseu (14 touchdowns), tight end Moliki Matavao (40 catches for 550 yards and five scores), and sophomore wideout Germie Bernard (842 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns).
But Centennial boasts a stingy defense. Last week, it held Desert Pines to one touchdown in an upset win. Two weeks ago, it nearly recorded a shutout in the regional semifinals. Defensive linemen Samie Wallace and Thomas Lane, linebackers Troy Miller and Donte Washington, and safety Nate Conger have been up to the test all season, whether by creating turnovers or recording double-digit tackles.
"That's a really well-coached team," Muraco said of the Bulldogs. "It's going to be one of those things where we have to move the ball and get some tempo going."
So what will it take for Centennial, the Mountain Region champions playing in the school's first state championship game in 20 years of existence, to beat Liberty? After all, the Bulldogs won just one game two seasons ago, and weren't projected to win their league at the beginning of the season.
Coach Dustin Forshee says his team will have to "play the perfect game. Get turnovers on defense, don't turn the ball over on offense."
The offense is often overshadowed by the defense, yet running back Jordan Smith has 1,700 yards and 24 touchdowns on the season, and junior quarterback Colton Tenney has 27 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. His favorite targets are Gerick Robinson and Aaron Johnson, who each have nine touchdowns.
"When we put a challenge in front of our kids, they step up to it," Forshee said.
Centennial will do a walk-through today at Sam Boyd Stadium, a college venue they have no experience playing in. The goal is for players to not be overwhelmed on the big stage.
Liberty is slightly more familiar with the stadium, with some of its upperclassmen taking part in the 2016 state championship game or the Polynesian Classic the following year.
That surely won't be enough to give the Patriots an edge, because once the game begins, both coaches agree it's simply another game — just with a trophy presentation at the end.
For the first time since 2009, that presentation won't involve Bishop Gorman. Rather, it will be a team that had a 1-8 record two seasons ago or one that started this season by losing five straight games.