They have rolled to a perfect 12-0 record, they have a high-scoring offense, they play stout defense, and they are eager for the chance to win a Class 2A state football championship in Saturday’s title game.
Sounds a lot like the Archbishop Murphy Wildcats, right? Well, that description also fits Archbishop Murphy’s opponent, the Liberty Patriots.
The two teams, parallel in so many ways, will collide in the Tacoma Dome at 1 p.m. Saturday with an undefeated season and a coveted championship the prizes for the winner.
For Liberty, part of the Issaquah School District, the 2016 football season was one of changes and surprises. The Patriots, who had been a Class 3A member of the KingCo for many years, dropped to 2A and also dropped their league affiliation. Liberty played an independent schedule with a few games against KingCo schools, but also five games against teams from Seattle’s Metro League.
The surprise, according to Patriots head coach Steve Valach, has been the team’s success.
“I don’t think the kids like hearing that,” he admitted, “but they’ve definitely surpassed what we thought we were going to do. … I don’t want to say that we didn’t believe in the kids, but we didn’t see this coming.”
Valach, who is in his 18th season at Liberty, has coached other good teams over the years, including a squad in 2009 that reached the Class 3A state title game against KingCo rival Bellevue.
This year’s team, he said, has been “so fun to coach. We don’t have any drama on our team … and that’s been a huge piece of it. We’ve got a bunch of kids that say, ‘It’s not about me, it’s about the team.’”
A great team attitude is important, of course, but it also helps to have talent and the Patriots have plenty of the latter. The team’s best player is probably defensive tackle Julian Bruce, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound junior who is the younger brother of former Washington State University and NFL defensive end Mkristo Bruce.
Julian Bruce is the team’s leading tackler and a likely NCAA Division I prospect. “And if he’s not (a DI prospect), then I have no idea what a Division I player is,” Valach said.
Though “our defense is the strength of our team,” he said, the Patriots have no problems gaining yards and scoring points on offense. Liberty runs the ball much more than it passes and has totaled close to 3,500 rushing yards in 12 games, though “we really don’t have a feature back.
“We give the ball to our sweepers (slotbacks) quite a bit, we run the quarterback quite a bit, and we have a fullback and a tailback and we run those guys quite a bit. So we really spread it out,” he said.
The quarterback, Austin Regis, switched from running back late last season due to an injury to the previous starter. He has 526 rushing yards this season (5.3 average) with 12 touchdowns.
The two leading ball-carriers are Cameron Spaeth, who has 749 yards (7.2) with seven touchdowns, and Dulin Hayden, who has 608 yards (7.3) with 17 touchdowns.
Still, for all their offensive and defensive potency, the Patriots know they face a formidable task in taking on Archbishop Murphy.
“They’re obviously a great team,” Valach said of the unbeaten Wildcats. “They’ve got size, they’ve got speed, and they’ve got playmakers all over the field. So it’s a big challenge.”
Over the years, he went on, Liberty would have state power Bellevue on its schedule every season, “and if we had a good year, we had to play Bellevue twice (with a second game in the state playoffs). So it’s not like we haven’t played dominant football teams before.”
That said, Archbishop Murphy “is really good and you have to respect them. But at end of day we always talk about how we have to be the best version of Liberty Patriots football. And when we’re that, we’re good enough to be 12-0.”
Going into Saturday’s game, Valach added, “we know we’re going to be huge underdogs. No one has even been competitive with Archbishop Murphy this season. So it’ll be a great challenge, and we’re definitely looking forward to it.”