PEORIA, Arizona- For the Liberty High School Lions being realigned into the top division in Arizona high school football is nothing new.
As recent as the 2015 season the lions competed in what was then known as Division 1, the highest level at the time. That season is somewhat infamous at Liberty though as they finished 4-7 and is their only losing season since football was instituted in 2008.
For the next two school years Liberty will be moving on up from 5A to 6A due to their increased enrollment. Truthfully, the lions barely made it into 6A by a margin of about 100 students. The 6A cutoff is 2,187 students and at the time the AIA recorded enrollment at Liberty there were 2,280 students. The realignment applies to all sports the school is involved in, both boys and girls. Coach Mark Smith is looking forward to the greater challenge.
“It’s gonna be another shot at the top and we’re all looking forward to it. Last time didn’t go so well so we wanna show people what Liberty is really about.” Smith Said.
The news comes on the back of a very successful season at Liberty. The lions are 9-1 with a headline win in the last week of the regular season against then undefeated and number one in state Centennial, with Liberty’s only loss coming to their closest neighbors and rival Sunrise Mountain. Sunrise Mountain is no slouch either as they posted a 9-1 record while on the road to grabbing the number one seed in 4A. All this only led to a number three seed for Liberty after finishing with the same record, in the same section, and with a win over their cross-town brethren Centennial, but Centennial still got the number two seed as undefeated Cienega took number one. Centennial likely got the benefit of the doubt due to their win over nationally ranked St. Thomas Aquinas from Florida, despite the head-to-head record being in the favor of Liberty.
When asked about being snuffed in the seeding junior Ryan Puskas didn’t necessarily agree.
“If that’s what they think, great. We can’t change their minds now, it’s in the past so now it’s time to perform.” Puskas said.
While Liberty and Sunrise Mountain rise to 6A and 5A respectively, it is the team that has been the most consistent that is staying put, Centennial. This is due to the fact that the AIA is strictly realigning on amount of students, not the quality of the athletic program at any given school. With only 1,969 students Centennial are stuck in 5A, the school could have filed an appeal but chose not to.
Another change to 6A is in the playoffs, more specifically the removal of automatic regional bids. This is the case where a worse team could win their section and get a playoff bid ahead of a better team that did not win their section. Playoff seeds are now based on final AIA power points.
Liberty Athletic Director Aaron Coughanour agreed with the sentiment.
“It just makes sense that the best teams make it into the final 16. We shouldn’t be punishing teams just because they are in a more difficult section than another school. We should be rewarding competition.” Coughanour said.
The Arizona football landscape will likely change as a result of this realignment, one can only hope for the better.