Zone Read: Better Than Best in the West

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Civil Liberty

The Liberty Lions won’t win many popularity contests.

They’re too focused on winning games.

Big games.

So how does one of the most successful Arizona high school programs seem to get left off the invite list of “elite” Arizona high school football programs?

“That’s fine,” Liberty head coach Colin Thomas said to the “Zone Read” without hesitation when asked about the oversights. “That really doesn’t bother us too much. Over the years we haven’t had quite as many players pass the eye test as other programs…[but] our players play exceptionally hard. They’re extremely passionate about playing football here at Liberty High School…we’re excited to prove that and earn the right to be mentioned as one of the elite schools in Arizona.”

Since 2017, the Lions have won nine or more games every season except one, 202o, when they finished 6-4, upset Centennial to open the 6A playoffs, then pushed eventual state champion Chandler to the limits, losing 35-34 in overtime. They won the 6A state championship in 2019. Last year Liberty whipped Basha 38-20 in the first round of the Open Division Playoffs, before again falling to Chandler in overtime, 27-21.

Liberty opened this season by shutting out neighborhood rival Sunrise Mountain 50-0, followed by last week’s 49-7 dismantling of Pinnacle.

Thomas insists there’s no magical formula – just hard work, accountability, and one badge of honor they wear every time they run out of the tunnel on Friday nights in the fall.

“We keep that chip on our shoulder pretty strong here at Liberty,” Thomas said of being overlooked by some. “Historically, obviously, the east Valley has been known to have some stronger teams. So, we’re excited any time we get a chance to play an east Valley power. We try to represent the west Valley the very best we can.”

Again, nothing flashy, just effective.

“I watched film one time through of their offense,” an anonymous opposing coach on Liberty’s schedule said to the “Zone Read.” “No weaknesses. No superstars but they always put 11 guys out there that can play. If you make one mistake, like being in the wrong gap, there is no recovery.”

Liberty also has made a habit of finishing seasons strong, peaking in the early winter when the stakes are highest.

Much of their sustained success Thomas credits to the high-level play of Liberty’s freshman and junior varsity teams. That winning mentality translates to the varsity level as the players improve all facets of their skills.

The program’s blueprint is clear.

Don’t expect the winning to stop anytime soon.

Better to Stay for the Pay?

The era of NIL has broken down financial doors for college student-athletes, as well as upped the ante for universities around the nation.

Now, a sizable portion of the recruiting package goes well beyond tuition, books, and housing.

As we’ve seen, elite-level talent can yield big dollars. Former Tucson Salpointe High star, now Texas Longhorn running back, Bijan Robinson has reportedly made close to $2 million in his time in Austin.

It got “Zone Read” thinking.

Fast forward a few years when, presumably, NIL deals will continue to swell in value as schools gain more experience fund-raising to grow their Chas pool in hopes of attracting, and keeping, highly recruited players.

Would NFL-bound college players re-consider making an early jump to pro ball if the college pot was just too sweet?

“I think it’s definitely a possibility,” Pinnacle multi-sport star Duce Robinson said to the “Zone Read.” “With that NIL stuff now, that’s life-changing money. You’re seeing guys sign for more than some of the best rookies in the NFL. I think it’s for sure a possibility.”

Robinson was quick to point, the most coveted pro prospects will likely sign pro contracts that far exceed college NIL deals, but believes standout college players, who may project to be drafted in rounds 2-5, could stay in school.

“Some very good players who will still make an impact on an NFL roster from their rookie year,” Robinson explained. “I could definitely see them staying in college for an extra year because of the NIL money that they could be making.” 

Two-Week Takeaways

Some schools in the Valley are preparing for their fifth game this week, while most of the big schools have just two in books.

Here are a few storylines  which caught my attention recently.

Shadow Mountain: So happy my friends at unearthed this gem earlier this week.

Break up the Matadors! The four wins this fall is more than Shadow accumulated the last three seasons combined. Last year SMHS went winless (0-10) and were outscored 510-105. Through the first four games, Ron Fagan’s team has already scored 138 points entering their game against Dysart this Friday. The better news? The core of Shadow’s roster are juniors or younger.

Cactus: I understand the jump from 4A to 5A can be steep, especially considering the talent and experience lost from last season’s Open Division squad under Joseph Ortiz, but a bit surprised the Cobras weren’t more competitive in back-to-back losses to Desert Mountain and ALA Queen Creek.

Yes, I understand those are both excellent  5A schools, but to be outscored by a combined margin of 77-13 is concerning. The schedule is far more manageable in the coming weeks but showdowns with Basha, Millennium, and Desert Edge to end the season could be major road blocks for first-year head coach Brian Belles. 

Williams Field: Death, taxes, and Steve Campbell winning football games.

No C.J. Tiller and Kyler Kasper? No problem. Black Hawks’ running back Dylan Lee was ridiculous against Chaparral. The junior running back ran for a 6A single-game record 518 yards and five touchdowns on 24 carries. Battle of the undefeated as they host Casteel on Friday.