Liberty High football coach Rich Muraco walked into an almost empty locker room to find a young player from the school’s feeder program gazing in awe at the equipment and uniforms hanging in the varsity team lockers.
Muraco, seeing the look on the youngster’s face, gave him a Liberty Patriots T-shirt. It was appropriate: The elementary-aged player participates in the Island Warriors youth program that calls Liberty home.
“His face just lit up. It was like I gave him a million dollars,” Muraco said. “He was like, ‘I can’t wait to come to Liberty.’”
Of the 130 players in the Island Warriors youth program — for children in first though eighth grades, including the Liberty Junior Patriots middle school team — about 70 percent will eventually play on the Liberty varsity squad.
A few other high schools in Southern Nevada have feeder programs, but none is as structured, populated and successful as the Island Warriors. And it is rare for a program to have teams for elementary school players.
Not only has the Liberty feeder program adopted some of the varsity team’s plays and formations, it practices each night alongside the high school players.
With the season set to begin next week, the varsity team runs drills in the back of the complex, followed by the high school junior varsity and freshman teams, and each of the four teams in the Island Warriors program.
When Liberty won the Sunrise Regional championship last year to advance to the state semifinals, its roster was loaded with players from the feeder program who developed a passion for the school.
“They can see what it looks like to be up there with the varsity,” said Clay Kahananui, the middle school coach. “They know what they are going for and how it’s going to take years and years of practice. But they already have a head start. They are learning bits and pieces of what it is like, so when they get there they will be successful.”
The feeder program is about more than football.
Seventy-five percent of the players in the program are of Polynesian descent. Practices are a chance for families — parents, siblings and other relatives — to meet at Liberty for a night of socializing.
There is often a barbecue, always good conversation and lifelong friendships formed with families who have moved to Southern Nevada from many Polynesian cultures.
“For the families, this is a gathering place because, in our culture, football is more than the game,” said Agatonu Nua, the Island Warrior founder. “A lot of the kids were born here, so this is a way for families to help teach them where we are from and about our traditions.”
The players are taught the Haka — a dance performed before the game — and versed on the importance of football in life. They come away with the understanding of teamwork and how hard work is crucial for success.
Spend one night at Liberty during a football practice and you’d swear you were on the islands. They even refer to Muraco, a New Yorker with a thick accent, as Uncle Rock — “uncle” being a term of endearment in Polynesian culture.
“I want to build a program like where I am from back East,” Muraco said. “You grow up in a town and you know in elementary school that you are going to a particular high school. The kids stay together and funnel their way up.
“That’s one of the disappointing things about Las Vegas,” he said. “It is so transient that there isn’t a lot of loyalty to the high school. There isn’t a lot of community. That is the best thing we have going for us. We have a sense of family and the kids truly care about each other.”
That also helps explain why Liberty’s bleachers are typically packed for home games. Younger teams’ members cheer on the players — their role models — counting the days until they can wear the Liberty red, white and blue uniforms.
“There is a lot of pressure because you are representing not only the Patriots but the Island Warriors,” Liberty senior Kimo Seau said. “I remember being one of the little kids in the middle school and looking up the older players. It’s amazing how it is my senior year and seeing those little kids practice down there.”
P.J. Taeao, Liberty 6-foot-1, 335-pound lineman standout, went directly from the feeder program to varsity starting lineup as a ninth-grader. His large frame and easygoing personality make him popular with the younger players.
“P.J. is my favorite. He is a good lineman,” 10-year-old Miah Taiese said. “I also know his dad. His dad is nice.”
At Liberty, you see, everyone knows each other. They are family, bonded by the love of football and desire to pass on their Polynesian heritage.
It’s something Muraco is proud to be part of, one Liberty Patriots T-shirt at time.