Red Mountain coach Mike Peterson sprinted toward the north end of Sun Devil Stadium to hug every one of his players as they exited the field.
As the seventh-ranked Liberty Lions celebrated their 34-28 overtime win over the top-ranked Mountain Lions in the 6A Conference championship at midfield, Peterson wanted to make sure his players knew how much this season meant to him.
“We are a family, I love those kids,” Peterson said with tears in his eyes. “I don’t want them to leave the field thinking I don’t love them because of what happened.”
Red Mountain trailed Liberty 21-14 heading into the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t long before Lions’ quarterback senior Jonah Guevara hit fellow senior running back Joseph Forney for a 21-yard gain to Red Mountain’s 1-yard line. Forney punched it in on the next play to make it 28-14 with just over 8 minutes to play.
It took nearly 4 minutes off the clock, but Red Mountain answered. Senior running back Ty McElroy punched it in from 8 yards out to trim Liberty’s lead. Red Mountain recovered its onside kick but wasn’t able to capitalize.
Liberty got the ball back with a chance to run out the clock, but Red Mountain’s stingy defense gave its offense one last shot.
This time, the Mountain Lions capitalized.
Boren found senior wideout Jared Wilson streaking down the middle of the field for a 53-yard touchdown. On the ensuing two-point try, Boren connected with junior George Ramirez to tie the game and send it to overtime.
“We talked about it at halftime,” Peterson said. “The white flag is for surrendering. We hoisted the black flag tonight because we weren’t going to surrender. Obviously when the clock runs out the rules are the rules.”
Liberty was first on offense in the overtime period, as the Lions got the ball at the Red Mountain 10-yard line. On their first play, Guevara took it up the middle for a touchdown. Liberty missed the point after, however, giving Red Mountain a shot to win the game.
“I know they had a lot of faith in me to put the ball in my hands at that moment,” Guevara said. “We dialed up the play, ran it to perfection and I got the ball across. We missed the PAT but we had faith in our defense.
“We just had to keep playing.”
As they did in spurts throughout the first three quarters of the game, Liberty’s defense stonewalled Red Mountain during its offensive possession. On fourth down, the Mountain Lions’ last chance, junior defensive back Zay Johnson picked off Boren in the end zone, securing Liberty’s first championship in program history.
“Adversity shows character,” Liberty coach Mark Smith said. “I’m really proud of our kids the way they hung in there and showed grit at the end. The senior motto this year was to finish and leave no doubt.”
Liberty was led all season long by Guevara. The Lions leaned on him to deliver in the semifinals against Desert Vista despite battling an illness the morning of the game, and they looked upon him again in the title game.
The senior delivered, as he finished 10-of-16 for 179 yards and two touchdowns through the air. He also had 59 rushing yards and another touchdown – the game-winner – on the ground. Forney, who was the lead back for Liberty with freshman Zaccheus Cooper out with a leg injury, added 44 yards and a touchdown of his own.
“It was unfortunate Zaccheus Cooper couldn’t play tonight, he was fantastic in the playoffs tonight,” Smith said. “I told him that he helped get us here, now the seniors were going to finish. One score, one stop, game.”
Red Mountain struggled to get in the end zone throughout most of the game. At halftime, they were held to just seven points despite 173 yards of offense. Their only score in the first two quarters came on a 20-yard pass from Boren to Ramirez.
Ramirez, who is also one of Red Mountain’s top defensive players, caught seven passes for 93 yards to go along with two touchdowns, the second of which came on a 39-yard pass from Boren in the third quarter. He was the top target of the night for Boren, who was 16-of-31 for 267 yards.
The loss was Red Mountain’s second of the season, as they finished 12-2 overall. But Peterson doesn’t want the outcome of Friday night’s 6A championship game to weigh heavy on his team, especially given all they accomplished this season.
This was the first time in 18 years Red Mountain made it to the championship game. Their only other loss on the season came against Perry in four overtimes. They dominated nearly every time they stepped out onto the field but ran into a red-hot Liberty team that ran the table after a heartbreaking loss to Chaparral in the regular-season finale.
“Someday as husbands we might have a spouse die,” Peterson said. “We will all have a parent die. We may go through a nasty divorce. There’s going to be bad things in our lives we have to overcome.
“This right here will make us better husbands and fathers in the future.”