Joshua Jefferson’s memory is sharp.
It was the spring of 2021 and Liberty High School was still taking classes remotely while much of life was shut down in the COVID-19 pandemic. He recalls the Google Meet call when his head coach Stefan Berg Patriots players he was stepping down after seven seasons.
Also on the call was his replacement, Kevin Soares, a longtime coach at 5A Foothills in Henderson, Nev. who was coming off of a one-year stint at 4A Bonanza.
When Soares introduced himself, he made clear he and the players shared the same goal: winning the program’s first NIAA Class 5A state title.
“I knew he knew what he was doing and I’d heard some good things about him, so I trusted him right away,” Jefferson said. “It seemed like my last shot. We had to go out with a bang.”
For Jefferson and his teammates, the clock was ticking on their high school careers, especially after the NIAA did not have a season in 2020-21 due to COVID-19. And a championship long eluded any team not named Bishop Gorman, which had won the last nine.
Now, less than a year later, Jefferson, who is signed with Saint Mary's, and his teammates who were on that call — DJ Thomas, Aaron Price and Kaeden Castillero — are in a months-long celebration.
The Patriots toppled Gorman in overtime in February to win the 5A title. They de-throned a Nevada dynasty. They'd accomplished a long-held dream. And for the first time in program history, they brought a championship trophy back to Liberty High School.
Jefferson and his teammates look back at that first meeting, the team's first practice and every step toward holding that trophy with a sense of accomplishment.
Nationally-ranked Bishop Gorman had beaten Liberty three times that season, including once in overtime in December. In 2019-20, Jefferson’s sophomore year, Gorman ended Liberty’s season on a regional semifinals buzzer-beater. And in the title game, Liberty trailed by as many as eight points before rallying to force overtime.
The celebration that started on the hardwood in the University of Nevada's Lawyler Events Center in Reno on Feb. 26 has continued in the form of media appearances, an onslaught of congratulations and buzz around town.
The latest celebration takes place on Wednesday, when the Patriots, the No. 25 team in SBLive/Sports Illustrated’s final Power 25 national rankings, gather for their team banquet to commemorate their run — one that began with a video call during a pandemic.
How after years of losses to the perennial power, including three close ones that season, did the Patriots pull it off?
“We actually fought back and didn’t give up,” Jefferson said.
In some ways, the win was like some of those losses — chaotic.
In overtime of the 5A title, Gorman pulled within one on a John “Juni” Mobley 3-pointer with 2.4 seconds left in overtime. Gaels senior Ryan Abelman stole the ensuing inbound and got off a shot before the buzzer that would have snatched victory from the Patriots' grasp.
Jefferson, who is signed with Saint Mary’s, got a piece of it and knew it would be short. As the buzzer sounded, he took a deep breath, looked to the ground and finally, after years of dreaming about it, let out one big exhale.
Liberty controlled parts of the game by slowing the pace down. It erased an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter to force overtime. And it survived yet another overtime buzzer-beater attempt.
“It felt good to get this one,” Jefferson said. “It was my first one. It felt 10 times better to win state against them, too.”
Jefferson spent four years losing to Gorman without one win, both during the season and in summer league. Gorman’s reign has last since he was in elementary school, even when Jefferson’s older brothers were in high school.
“They’re like 30 and 24 now,” Jefferson said. “It’s just been happening so long. It’s just good to see a change.”
Liberty players were sick of losing. And despite the losses, both over the years and the nail biters throughout the season, they never let go of the belief that a title was possible.
Said Soares: "Gorman was the benchmark."
For Soares, it was his first state championship as a coach, and first since 1988, when he won as a standout at Bishop Gorman. He went on to star at the University of Nevada, where he still holds the assists and steals records.
At Foothills, he won nine straight division titles, was a five-time Sunrise Region coach of the year, two-time Sunrise champion and a 2004 Class 4A state runner-up.
When Berg called Soares to tell him he was stepping down and beckoned him to go for the job, his pitch was simple.
“He told me,” Soares said, “the cupboard is stocked.”
When Soares showed up to his first practice as head coach, he marveled that many of the players towered over his 6-foot-1 frame.
“I had big men for the first time,” Soares said. “Like legitimate big men.”
Good ones, too.
The 6-foot-9 Jefferson averaged 17.8 points, 10 boards, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game. 6-foot-7 senior Aaron Price averaged 9.2 points on a team-best 66 percent shooting, and he stepped out and hit a couple jumpers early, forcing Gorman to adjust defensively.
And he had a point guard, Dedan "DJ" Thomas Jr. (13.3 points, 5.4 assists, 2.0 steals per game), a fiery four-star 6-1 sophomore with offers from Washington State, LSU and UNLV.
Then Mason Muir, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, moved from out of state and junior guard Angelo Kambala transferred from Coronado to bolster the backcourt. They added size and length when 6-6 forward D’Angelo Daley transferred in.
“They gave us that lift we needed to get over the hump to have enough talent to beat against Gorman,” Soares said.
Soares’ task to mold that talent into a cohesive unit didn’t happen overnight.
During a game at Section 7, a popular west coast tournament in the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., Soares didn't like what he saw. He could sense players going through the motions, not looking for others and playing selfish.
Soares’ message was biting — and the response, he thinks, taught the team that in order to win off-the-court battles, off-the-court battles cannot be ignored.
“The only way we were going to win championships is by believing in each other,” Soares said. “After that day, we turned a corner.”
His first meeting with the team was last spring. Coincidentally, it happened exactly a year before the team’s banquet celebrating the season.
“We accomplished all of that in less than a year,” Soares said. “That’s pretty remarkable. Shows you how much talent we had, and how much kids bought in.”
Lead photo by Ed Anderson