West Valley Preps
It was an unusual Liberty-Sunrise Mountain football game … at least since the North Peoria neighborhood rivalry resumed in 2016.
There was no last-minute drive with the game hanging in the balance. No superlative performance by the Mustangs’ quarterback. Heck, these two programs that like to gamble never even went for two.
In the end, the 2019 edition of this showdown was more like the 2011 version. Visiting Liberty seized command early and dominated the home Mustangs in every phase. This time around the margin was 41-14 Lions.
“Sunrise Mountain is a fast-starting team. We said we’ve got to challenge ourselves to start fast with them. If you let them out 14-0 or 21-0, you’re playing catch-up football. We don’t want to be in that type of game. We wanted to make them one dimensional and have to catch up,” Liberty coach Mark Smith said.”Those takeaways were huge early in the game and having our offense being able to pay off with short fields really helped us out early.”
Sunrise Mountain (2-1) received its only good news of the night well after the long game ended around 10:30 p.m. Saturday morning, the school’s Twitter page confirmed that junior running back Bryce Cord – taken off the field in an ambulance in the third quarter – suffered a concussion but not any more severe injuries.
Cord caught a quick slant for 16 yards midway through the quarter, ducking under the first wave of Lions defenders then straightening up a split second before taking a high and hard hit with enough force to pop his helmet into the air and draw a personal foul.
He was on the turf for about 20 minutes being evaluated and then stabilized, though Cord was able to move both hands and one leg shortly after contact. A Peoria Fire-Medical ambulance transported him to Phoenix Children’s Hospital as a precaution.
On fourth and goal following the resumption of the game, senior quarterback Alex Gianoli hit senior receiver Nate Duran in the back of the end zone for a six-yard touchdown, cutting the Lions lead 21-7.
Even that glimmer of hope did not last long for the home fans. Senior tailback/linebacker Jace Accurso rolled for 21 yards on two quick carries, then senior tailback Joseph Forney broke a tackle four yards downfield and bounced outside to rush for a 29-yard touchdown.
“It’s so much fun running behind our line. We’ve been playing together since freshman year. Joseph has been waiting for his turn until his senior year and he took advantage of it tonight. He ran the ball hard, like he meant it,” Accurso said.
The first play from scrimmage set the tone, as Gianoli fumbled and senior defensive end Luke Stephenson recovered at the Mustangs’ 30. Accurso got the first two carries, then leaked out of the backfield for a 9-yard reception on third and goal from the 10.
On fourth and goal from the one, Liberty (2-1) scored on a quick fullback dive from junior Josef Pennella. Two Mustang drives later, the Lions gave up two first downs on penalties but stoned a Sunrise Mountain fourth down near midfield.
Two plays into the second quarter, senior quarterback Jonah Guevara connected with senior receiver Jaiden Pina on an out route for a 20-yard touchdown and 14-0 lead.
The Mustangs had a shot at momentum following a punt return to the Liberty 28, but senior linebacker/tailback Isaiah Pittman sacked Gianoli on fourth down.
Heading into the next Sunrise Mountain drive, with about four minutes left in the second quarter, the Mustangs had five yards of total offense.
“When you play Sunrise Mountain you’d better stop the quarterback. If you don’t stop the quarterback, it’s over,” Smith said. “Our goal was to keep him in the pocket, make him step up and every time someone touched the ball, we wanted to make sure someone understood it was going to be a long night. That’s a tough team that had a great win last week, and I’m really happy with how our boys stepped up.”
Gianoli completed passes of 13, 15 and nine yards and two more Liberty penalties got the home team into the red zone. Even that drive ended in disappointment as Pittman and senior defensive tackle Grant Collins teamed up to block sophomore Easton Black’s 29-yard field goal attempt.
Before halftime the teams traded turnovers, as junior Brandon Bogard picked off Liberty junior quarterback Brock Mast at his own 42. Gianoli fumbled again on the next play, and junior safety/kicker Shane Pitts was there for the recovery.
“We always thrive on special teams, and if we can get a block it’s very important for us,” Pitts said.
Accurso, Pittman and Pitts shined in multiple roles. Friday night. To begin the third quarter, Accusrso, Forney and Pittman alternated carries as the Lions ran six straight times for 45 yards.
Then Guevara took advantage of a defense keying on the ground game, connecting with senior receiver Gavin Guy for an easy 26-yard scoring strike and 21-0 advantage.
The constant was a Liberty offensive line that now has senior ASU commit Frank Thompson back at full strength. The visitors gained 286 yards on 38 carries with most coming from Accurso (11 carries, 114 yards) and Forney (10 carries, 86 yards).
“This year, ever since the big man competitions, you can tell we’re just stronger. Tonight, we dominated at the point of attack,” Accurso said.
They were on the move again to end the third quarter. Then Guevara and Pina struck again from 25 yards out to start the fourth.
Through three games, Guevara and Mast have alternated series. Friday night the senior was secondary but very steady and dynamic when his number was called. Guevara completed 9 of 12 passes for 105 yards and three scores.
“You want to see poise out of the quarterback, and stability and someone who takes care of the football,” Smith said. “That’s core value of number one. Core value number two is hunt the football. I think we did well in both.”
Gianoli and Duran connected again from three yards out in the fourth. Again, Liberty had a big answer after securing an onside kick attempt.
On the next snap, Accurso provided the exclamation point. The 225-pound plow horse turned race horse, rumbling 65 yards for the final scoring play.
“I saw the hole and it was a slant, so whenever you get past the first level, it’s over with. It’s all thanks to my line,” Accurso said.
Sunrise Mountain has good timing with its bye next week. After an opening 9-6 loss at Brophy Prep, Liberty needs to continue to display the urgency they showed against their rival.
The Lions have two tough contests before their bye. They host Mesa Desert Ridge, then travel for their first out-of-state game to Nevada … where they play highly-ranked Liberty of Henderson.
Though the crowd was a bit subdued by the lopsided game and Cord’s injury, the place was – once again – packed to the point that students were standing on the track.
“I’m real proud of our coaches and our program. And what a great atmosphere out here tonight. Unbelievable. When they say football is dead … football’s not dead here in North Peoria. It’s alive. I wish we could play 10 games like this,” Smith said.