Liberty wrestling does not skip a beat: Among top contenders in first Division I meet

Liberty senior 195-pound wrestler Luke Pauga, right, drills with a teammate on Jan. 30 at at Liberty High School in Peoria.[Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

When the time came for Liberty High School to make the jump to the state’s biggest school division, perhaps none of the north Peoria campus’ successful sports programs were more ready than its wrestling team.

The Lions finished second in Division II in 2018. And — despite the graduation of three-time state champion Miles Nuessle and two-time champ James Deitz — this year’s team would be disappointed if it does not end up in the top three of Division I this week.

State will take place Friday and Saturday at the Findlay Toyota Center in Prescott Valley. And the last month of results suggests Liberty will battle Phoenix Desert Vista and Mesa Mountain View for the overall crown.

“We knew we were going to be good, there was no doubt. And every year the goal is to win the state tournament, even if we’re the only ones that believe it,” Liberty coach Eric Brenton said. “We have three out-of-state tournaments and two in state to prepare.”

Part of the confidence in this group stemmed from junior Kamryn Stonebraker (152 pounds), senior Kirby Hansen (182), sophomore Collin McCorkle (145) and junior Matthew Stevenson (170). Arizona’s top program, Tucson Sunnyside, moving down to Division II did not hurt.

However, an elite freshman class has put these Lions over the top. Two of the newcomers, Zander Phaturos (106) and Carson Coy (113) are three weeks removed from being among the rare freshmen to win their weight class at the Peoria Invitational.

“Three of them were junior high state champs. But sometimes that transition (to high school varsity) is difficult. We knew they were extremely talented. I think they kind of exceeded expectations with how quick they adapted,” Brenton said. “From the beginning of the year to today, their style of wrestling has changed dramatically. They’re very mature for their age and if they feel pressure, it doesn’t show.”

To prepare for deeper competition at the sectional and state tournaments, Liberty wrestling sought challenges out of state.

The 48th annual El Cajon Invitational Dec. 15-16 was the first of those, and Hansen and fellow senior Luke Pauga said that was crucial to bring this group getting together.

“We had such a good team bond. Right off the bat we were a really close team and it was awesome for it to happen at the beginning of the season,” Hansen said. “That was our second tournament, so right off the bat we knew we were competitive,”

Quickly, the Lions’ depth showed as well. This group is more than a handful of veteran aces and young standouts.

Senior Andrew Correa placed sixth at 126 pounds in Division II last year. Now he has grown to be a legitimate Division I contender at 132.

Then there’s the football guys. Juniors Josh Filby and Vince Maestas and senior Luke Pauga give the Lions tremendous depth at 195 and 220 pounds. Junior Frank Thompson is a solid heavyweight.

“It was nice to see. He has not been in that top tier where people say, ‘Oh man, I’ve got Andrew Correa.’ But now he’s beat some very talented guys,” Brenton said.

Plus, the Lions had more than two freshmen make a splash at sectionals Feb. 2 and capable of doing the same at state.

Freshman Tyler Sauter finished second at Peoria at 126 pounds. And Brenton said Jonathon Rogers, the Lions’ 120 pounder, is coming on late.

“We knew off the bat that we had some studs as freshmen. But they just produced from day one,” Pauga said.

To sharpen this team for the Division I gauntlet, Brenton and the administration sought tougher competition out of state.

Along with the El Cajon tournament, the Lions went to the Las Vegas Holiday Classic Dec. 22 and the Rockwell Rumble Jan. 18-19 in Heber City, Utah.

Rockwell, which brought together top teams from nine states, was hands down the toughest field, according to Brenton and both seniors interviewed.

“That Rockwell tournament was tough. You’re wrestling state runner ups and state placers in round one. What’s really special about those trips though, is the team coming together on the road,” Brenton said. “We always talk about wanting state to be the second-easiest tournament, with sectionals being the easiest.”

On their roundabout way to Utah, the Lions stopped in Yuma for their most important dual meet. Cibola finished second in Division I last season, behind Sunnyside.

Also, the Raiders knocked off Liberty wrestling Nov. 20, which Brenton said served as a wake up call for his team. The second time around was very different, though Brenton was quick to note that Cibola was missing two top guys.

Even with that consideration, the Lions thoroughly dominated the rematch, winning 52-9 in Yuma on Jan. 16.

“That was nice, to avenge that loss and to be able to get another look at them and see how we’ve improved,” Pauga said.

Part three took place over the weekend. Cibola was Liberty’s toughest foe in Section II. Brenton also cited Boulder Creek, Mountain Ridge and O’Connor as tough section foes.

But the coach also believed the Lions can qualify wrestlers in all 14 weight classes, which required a top four finish in sectionals.

He was off a bit … Liberty wrestling qualified in 13 classes from the Section II meet, cruising to the section title with 235 points to Cibola’s 152.

The following eight Lions claimed section titles:

  • Zander Phaturos (106 pounds)
  • Carson Coy (113 pounds)
  • Jonathon Rogers (120 pounds)
  • Andrew Correa (132 pounds)
  • Edgar Delgado (138 pounds)
  • Collin McCorkle (145 pounds)
  • Matthew Stevenson (170 pounds)
  • Luke Pauga (195 pounds)

“We wanted better looks. We wanted to be wrestling the best people in the state, so we were super happy that we got moved up. And we’re still competing,” Hansen said.

All that remains is state. Sunnyside’s removal helps but Division I is still the deepest pool, as Mesa Mountain View (2014 and 2015), Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge (2016) and Tempe Corona del Sol (2017) ended the Blue Devils’ dynasty with their own state title victories.

Ironwood Ridge is back in Division II now. But Desert Vista and Mountain View, along with solid teams from Cibola and Chandler.

“Desert Vista will arguably have 3-5 in the finals at state. Mountain View was missing two of their studs at Peoria and we were missing Stonebraker. I would say we’re definitely a top three team, if we wrestle like we have at Vegas, El Cajon and Peoria,” Brenton said.

Hansen said the three out-of-state tournaments, plus the Peoria Invitational were excellent over-preparation for state.He also said the team’s ability to adapt to competing with the big boys starts with the coaching staff.

“They’re our coaches but they definitely look out for us. They want what’s best for us in the room and out of the room. That’s what it takes to be a great team. You need to be dedicated and you need to make good decisions in here and outside,” Hansen said.

Liberty wrestling edged Chandler Seton Catholic in dramatic fashion to win the program’s first state title in 2016.

But a Division I championship in its first try would be the program’s pinnacle.

“It would be a testament to all the hard work we’ve put in,” Pauga said.

Since the school’s enrollment continued to grow, Brenton was able to prepare four years for this season.

The vision for this version of the program, however, started when it opened in 2006.

“Thirteen years ago, this was the vision. We’ve had the right people come in at the right time with the right administration. Our assistant coaches, parents and administration have been unbelievable. We have the best athletic trainers. Across all sports, our coaching staffs look out for one another,” Brenton said.

Liberty wrestling
Liberty senior 182-pound wrestler Kirby Hansen, left, drills with a teammate on Jan. 30 at at Liberty High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

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