... And then came the postseason. Now the Raiders are making a habit of playing tight contests. Reed posted its third straight come-from-behind playoff win on Saturday. The latest nailbiter saw North Region champion Reed hand Sunrise Region champion Liberty a 35-31 defeat at Bishop Manogue High School in an NIAA DI state semifinal.
"We've come from behind in our last three playoff games," Reed coach Ernie Howren said. "We had to face adversity and fight back. This just says a lot about our kids and their preparation."
The lead changed hands six times in the second half. The last lead change came when Reed's senior quarterback Chris Denn threw into double coverage only to see the Raiders' top receiver, Trae Wells, pull down a 25-yard reception and get one foot down in the back of the end zone for what proved to be the game winning touchdown with 34 seconds showing on the game clock.
Wells finished with 6 catches for 111 yards.
The key score came one play after the most controversial call of the contest. Denn was nearly picked off over the middle, but officials ruled the football hit the ground as a Liberty defensive back dove to the ground in an attempt to make the interception. Officials huddled up and discussed the call before disbanding and giving an incomplete pass signal that gave Reed second life.
With the Raiders trailing 31-28, Denn did throw an interception with 2:58 to go in the game and Liberty took over at its own 30 in hopes of salting away the final three minutes. The Las Vegas school's plan to melt away the remaining time did not come to fruition as the Reed defense held.
Liberty faced a fourth-and-4 from its own 36. Patriots coach Rich Muraco opted not to punt and hope his defense could preserve the lead. Liberty gave the ball to tailback Ethan Tuilagi and he was stuffed two yards short of the first-down marker. That gave Reed possession at the LHS 38 with 1:25 to go in the playoff affair and set the stage for the Denn-to-Wells heroics.
"It was a back-and-forth game," Liberty coach Rich Muraco said. "I just have so much confidence in our offense. I gambled. To Reed's credit, their guys stepped up and it cost us ... We had the ball with 1:30 to go and I felt more confident in the offense getting a few yards than I did punting the ball away and asking our defense to get a stop. In the end, that kind of backfired."
Reed's win was ensured when Raiders all-league safety Austin Warner pulled down an interception at the Reed 25 with seven ticks left.
"I was just thinking, I had to get on top so I could get the interception," Warner said. "I got lucky and came up with the catch. Our defense steps up when we need to."
Next, Reed offense took a knee, the final buzzer sounded and the east Sparks school earned a berth in next weekend's DI state championship game. Reed (12-1) will meet four-time defending state champion Bishop Gorman (12-1) at Sam Boyd Stadium at 1 p.m. Dec. 7 in the title tilt.
"The old saying goes, 'when preparation meets opportunity ...," Howren said in the postgame celebration. "Our kids were prepared and the opportunity presented itself. We made good things happen.
"You have to remember, at this point in the season, everyone left has a good offense and good defense. There are going to be some points scored. I think our guys played a tremendous game."
Liberty (10-4), which came into the game riding a nine-game wining streak, had gone ahead 31-28 when Tuilagi ran over the goal line from a yard out with 4:09 remaining in the postseason clash. The Patriots' last touchdown came after a nine-play 77-yard drive.
Reed built a 14-10 lead by the intermission, but the Liberty offense was much more potent in the second half. The Raiders got the second-half kickoff but Denn threw his first interception on that drive and Liberty cashed in on the turnover. The Clark County school went 66 yards on seven plays, a drive capped by a Tuilagi 7-yard touchdown run.
While Denn threw two interceptions, and caught a break when officials ruled what may have been a third, an incomplete pass, Reed's senior signal caller rebounded from every mistake.
"Quarterbacks are going to make mistakes, and when they do, everyone sees them," Howren said. You saw the kind of mental toughness Chris Denn has. He just kept going out there and getting it done."
Denn finished with 133 rushing yards on 16 carries and completed 18-of-27 passes for 202 yards through the air.
"The offensive line did a great job blocking and our receivers ran good routes," Denn said. "I couldn't fall back down. I felt like I had to make plays for my teammates."
Trailing 17-14 and facing its first deficit of the day, Reed was unfazed. the Raiders marched 80 yards and got a 3-yard scoring scamper from Jordan de Leon to go back on top 21-17.
The two teams traded touchdowns before Liberty took its last lead at 31-28.
Reed was the better team in the first half, taking a 14-10 lead into the locker room at the half. Reed held the halftime lead despite running just 23 plays in the first two quarters, compared to the 47 of Liberty. Both of Reed's touchdowns came on two-play drives.
Liberty got the ball first but came away empty after missing a 36-yard field goal try. Reed responded, taking over at its own 19. Denn rambled 59 yards down to the Liberty 26 on the Raiders' first offensive play. On the next play, de Leon went right up the middle for a 26-yard touchdown burst.
de Leon got 19 rushes for 82 yards and a trio of scores.
The two teams proceeded to trade punts, before Liberty knotted the playoff affair at 7-7 with 11:34 left in the second quarter. The tying touchdown came on a 1-yard run by Alofania Tevaseu.
The deadlock was short-lived. Reed got a go-ahead score shortly thereafter. Raiders return man Colin Palian had a 52-yard return to set Reed up at the Liberty 38. Two plays later, Denn hooked up with Trae Wells for a 31-yard score on a go route up the middle and the Sparks school led 14-7 just over a minute into the second quarter.
Liberty trimmed the Reed lead to 14-10 just before halftime. That came when the Patriots got a 40-yard Austin Fitzgerald field goal with 42 seconds remaining in the second quarter.