'The Liberty way': Peoria program has transformed into Arizona high school football mega-power

Liberty's Layton Vining (55) takes the field with his teammates before they play Pinnacle at Liberty High School in Peoria on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.
Liberty's Layton Vining (55) takes the field with his teammates before they play Pinnacle at Liberty High School in Peoria on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

Liberty High School isn't a sleeping football giant in the far northwest corner of the Valley anymore.

The team, from a school located in the ever-growing north Peoria corridor, has proven as much over the past three seasons and with how it has played in the first three games this year.

The Lions are for real and this might be their best team yet, one that is good enough to finally be exorcizing the semifinal playoff demon that has kept them from clearing the Chandler hurdle in overtime two years in a row.

They are good enough to be the last team standing in December at Sun Devil Stadium, holding up the gold ball in the Open Division, with arguably the best defense the state has seen in more than a decade.

They've built this monster with what they like to call "The Liberty way." Without being the typical 'destiny' school to which elite transfers from across the Valley and impact incoming freshmen splash greatness from the opposite end of the metropolis.

It's been built mostly from within. Within the school boundaries. Within the Peoria district area, where many families are now picking Liberty over Centennial and Sunrise Mountain. With youth programs, most notably the Junior Lions, where guys like quarterback Navi Bruzon and linebacker Keaton Stam grew up playing to some day become the Liberty Lions. And at the junior high school.

"I think the program is drawing attention from the colleges more so than ever," said Jason Stam, Keaton's dad, whose older son Jax started at safety the last four years on varsity. "We have the same guys coming by that swing by Chandler, Saguaro, Basha.

"Kids and parents are realizing they don't need to drive 40 minutes to a school to get an offer ... If you're a D-I dude, then they will find you."

Colin Thomas came to Liberty from outside of Arizona in 2015 after Mark Smith hired him to be his offensive coordinator.  Smith left after Liberty won its first state championship, in 6A in 2019, the first year the Arizona Interscholastic Association began the eight-team, best-of-the-big-school-conferences Open Division playoffs.

Thomas took over.

In 2020, Liberty got thumped badly by Chandler early in the season, only to erase a 28-7 halftime deficit in the Open semifinals to send the game into overtime. The Lions lost when they weren't able to convert a two-point conversion after a touchdown.

Last year, the Lions were up big on Chandler in the Open semifinals, only to see a miraculous comeback by the Wolves in the waning moments to send the game into overtime, leaving the Lions heartsick in the end.

This team is different. It's defense is big, physical, fast, schematically complex. The offense is efficient with Bruzon in command with playmakers who can fly on the outside and a downhill-running tailback in Zach Wallace, behind a big line led by center Layton Vining.

Simply put, they've got dudes, starting with Oregon-commit defensive end My'Keil Gardner anchoring the front line that starts the pressure and leads to turnovers.

"Coaches put in game plans every day," Gardner said. "We're learning new stuff.

"We switch up so much stuff. The way we align. We've got linebackers that come down and want to hit."

The next two games are the biggest on the schedule — Friday night at defending Open champion Saguaro and the following week against Basha. Liberty gave Basha its only loss last season in the Open quarterfinals, a dominating game by the defense, especially Gardner.

"As time went on, after 2019, we started to really take over the program with the seniors now," Gardner said.

Gardner grew up on the other side of Peoria, closer to Raymond S Kellis. But he knew he wanted to go to Liberty by the time he reached the eighth grade.

It's grown to the point where Liberty has gone from a 4A school enrollment in 2008 when it began playing, to now about 2,600 students as the community expands.

Liberty no longer takes a back seat to Peoria Centennial, which was the big team in the ever-changing West Valley landscape, starting in 2006 when it won the first of three consecutive state championships in Division II (the equivalent of 5A), compiling a 41-1 record during that run.

"When I got here, there was really nothing on this side of Liberty," Thomas said, pointing to the north of campus. "Now all of those homes are built. There's a housing development over here. Vistancia continues to build new homes.

"When I got here, we were maybe 2,000 kids. Now we're at 2,600 kids and it's expected to be 3,000 the next couple of years."

Changing West Valley football landscape

The movement in high school football on the west side started in the 1970s and '80s in Phoenix with Trevor Browne and Maryvale both state powerhouses. Then, in the latter half of the '80s and into the '90s, it moved north to Peoria and Glendale Cactus. Then, in the 2000s, Centennial took over as the west side powerhouse.

Now it's turning to Liberty, although you can go back south on the 303 towards Goodyear and Buckeye and find football being strong, especially at Desert Edge, south of the Estrella Mountain community that has shown incredible growth over the past decade.

John Padilla, the Avondale St. John Paul II Catholic school head football coach, played on Trevor Browne's first state playoff team in 1978. By 1980, the Bruins began a three-year run of playing in the big-school state championships, winning their only title in 1981 under coach Bill Mitton.

That was the last Phoenix Union High School District school to win a big-school state football championship.

Trevor Browne and Maryvale remained a consistent state playoff team through the '90s, before a lot of those players had families and moved north into newer homes.

"I think the biggest thing is coaching stability," Padilla said. "Bill Mitton was there from when they opened in '72 to what 2001. That's unheard of anymore."

Trevor Browne is 4-0 under young coach Francisco Rangel, bringing a sense of pride back to the program and showing the West Valley can be good up and down the 101 and the 303 freeways.

Canyon View in Waddell might be the next sleeping giant on the west side.

Liberty's Owen  Dalton (32) carries a sledge hammer as he takes the field with his teammates before they play Pinnacle at Liberty High School in Peoria on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.
Liberty's Owen Dalton (32) carries a sledge hammer as he takes the field with his teammates before they play Pinnacle at Liberty High School in Peoria on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

"The West Valley is exploding," said second-year Waddell Canyon View coach Nick Gehrts, noting that the school was built about five years ago for 1,800 students and is now at 2,200. "We currently have construction going on to add onto a school that is only five years old.

"We have houses being built all around us and it will only continue. I think it starts from the top. We have a really great administration at Canyon View with our principal (Lyn Reid) and our athletic director (Andrea Hudson). We get tons of support from them as well as our (Agua Fria) district."

Canyon View went 7-4 last year with its first graduation class and made the playoffs.

"We think culture is the most important thing in our program so much so that we created a position on our staff that is titled culture coordinator," said Gehrts, who developed a strong culture while he was head coach at Avondale Westview, before the Tolleson district decided not to play football in 2020 due to COVID-19. "Our culture is built around three things -- relentless effort, own your role and power of the unit. Our graduating class last year really bought into and this year it has been even stronger."

Liberty has had zero transfers on the varsity level this year.

Of the 22 starting positions, maybe one or two transferred in the last two years.

Coaching, starting in the Junior Lions program, has been key, said Stam, who helped start that youth program in 2015 when Smith was hired as the head high school football coach.

They produced California Golden Bears senior linebackers Ryan Puskas and Braxten Croteau.

"We got to experience their style of coaching and dynamics around the kids," Jason Stam said. "I will say their schemes are very complex, more so than what I was exposed to in college.

"Junior high kids begin to learn this on Day One of the junior high program. In prior years we never passed the eye test but always hung in big games."

Now they not only pass the eye test, the Lions are obliterating the opposition, They've outscored their three opponents 149-14, scoring 50 points twice, which makes the routs even more fitting, because 50 was the number worn by former Liberty lineman Zach Hunzinger, who lost his battle with bone cancer in July. They've dedicated this season to Zach.

The first team defense has not given up a score.

"I never knew until eighth grade where I was going," Bruzon said about choosing Liberty. "It's the community. When I went to the first game, it was cool to see the energy everybody brought."

To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at richard.obert@arizonarepublic.com or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter @azc_obert.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'The Liberty way': Arizona HS team grows into power within boundaries