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October 24, 2014

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Signing Day Blog: Family plays big role in signings of Liberty stars

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Paul Delos Santos

Liberty football players Niko Kapeli, left, and Kai Nacua are shown together after signing national letters of intent Wednesday, Feb. 6, in their school’s gymnasium.

Updated Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 | 7:32 a.m.

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Liberty football player Kai Nacua signed a national letter of intent Wednesday, Feb. 6, in their school's gymnasium. He'll play for Brigham Young University.

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Liberty football player Niko Kapeli signed a national letter of intent Wednesday, Feb. 6, to play for UNLV.

Southern Nevada's signing day class of 2013

Editor's note: Check back all day as the Sun documents national signing day at Las Vegas area schools.

Even with a prepared speech, Liberty’s Kai Nacua’s voice began to crack and tears started to flow when talking about his late father, Lionel.

“Dad,” Nacua said powering through tears. “We made it. I’m going to BYU just like you wanted.”

A few feet to his right, his teammate and UNLV signee Niko Kapeli looked on.

“He’s like a brother to me,” said Kapeli, who himself had tears when he addressed a small group of friends and family inside the Liberty High School cafeteria.

It was a fitting scene to have Kapeli and Nacua celebrate national signing day together.

The dynamic duo was the motor that powered the Patriots to success on the field. The two accounted for 60 percent of Liberty’s scoring this season, and a trip to the school’s first-ever state championship game in 2012.

Nacua and Kapeli were also instrumental in helping the Patriots win three consecutive Sunrise Region titles.

“It doesn’t matter about the coaching. When you have great players, it helps out a lot,” Liberty coach Rich Muraco said of the school’s recent success.

Nacua played all over the field for the Patriots. He played quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver, free safety and punter.

Nacua scored 30 touchdowns (16 rushing, 10 passing and four receiving), and close to 2,200 yards from scrimmage this season. He also registered 40 tackles with two interceptions.

After losing in the state championship game to Bishop Gorman, Nacua couldn’t wait for Wednesday to become a reality.

“I’m happy it’s here,” said Nacua, who is slated to play linebacker for the Cougars.

The decision to head to Provo, Utah, was a simple one.

It was the place where his dad — who died at 45 in May 2012 — envisioned him and his younger brother, Isaiah (a junior at Bishop Gorman) to go.

“We felt like this is the spot for us,” said Kai Nacua, whose younger brother is verbally committed to BYU.

Family also mattered when it came to Kapeli’s decision.

He simply chose UNLV to stay close to home, keeping his family within an arm’s reach.

“They could come by and watch me play,” Kapeli said. “If I needed them, I could just drive by.

The running back rushed for 14 touchdowns and 1,281 yards.

Kapeli is Liberty’s all-time leading rusher with 5,579 yards and 57 touchdowns during his four-year varsity career.

“There’s no secret our success started with Niko Kapeli coming into the program four years ago,” Muraco said.

Despite the two going their separate ways, it is likely the two will see each other again on the football field.

BYU and UNLV are scheduled to play each other in 2014 and 2015, marking the first time the two have played against each other since middle school.

“That would be awesome if they got to play (on the field) against each other,” Muraco said. “It would make me very proud and make the fans of Liberty High School very proud.”

Nacua expects signing day to become a bigger deal at Liberty in the coming years.

Muraco, on the other hand, tempered his expectations of the yearly signing parties.

“It’s difficult to get a Division I football scholarship,” Muraco said. “You need your grades. You have to play well on the football field. You have some intangibles with the size and speed.”

— Paul Delos Santos

Centennial's Trajan Pili never wavered from dream school

Some recruits agonize over the process of selecting a college throughout their entire high school football careers, flip-flopping on what they’re looking for and pushing their decision back to the last second.

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Centennial defensive end Trajan Pili signs his letter of intent to play for Brigham Young University with his family by his side on Wednesday February 6.

Centennial defensive end Trajan Pili represents the polar opposite end of the spectrum. Pili committed to Brigham Young University nearly two years ago after attending the school’s summer football camp and never questioned his decision.

Pili officially signed and celebrated his commitment on national signing day.

“From the beginning, I knew where I wanted to go,” Pili said. “Once they offered me, I prayed about it, thought about it. A few days later, I accepted. I’m ecstatic with my decision.”

Pili figured out he one day wanted to play for BYU as an eighth-grader. During spring football that year, he realized he had the foundation for two of the attributes needed to play at the next level — passion and skill.

“I had some talent that I could work on,” Pili said. “I had some potential, so I made my goal.”

He regularly showed off that talented on the field for the Bulldogs. Pili was a three-year starter at Centennial on both sides of the ball, playing tight end on offense.

It’s no coincidence Centennial had two of the best seasons in school history under Pili’s leadership. The Bulldogs advanced to the Sunset Regional Championship last season for the first time ever.

Centennial also knocked off perennial power Palo Verde, a school it had never beaten, in the regular season and neighborhood rival Arbor View, which it hadn’t beaten in four years, in the playoffs.

“He’s been a huge part of the success we’ve had here at Centennial,” coach Leon Evans said of Pili. “We wouldn’t have been where we were this year without him.”

Pili was the rare player to make the preseason All-Sun Team in two straight years.

At BYU, Pili is expected to switch to outside linebacker. He plans to play one year for coach Bronco Mendenhall before serving a mission for the LDS church and returning to the program two years later.

“I’m ready to get to college and work my butt off,” Pili said. “I just want to be successful in life and this is going to help me get there.”

-Case Keefer

Elijah George signs with Oregon, but it's about more than just him at Arbor View

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Arbor View football players — including Elijah George, far left — pose with their coaches after signing national letters of intent Wednesday Feb. 6 in their school's gymnasium.

They almost needed a bigger table at Arbor View to accommodate all of the college football signees.

In addition to Oregon-bound offensive lineman Elijah George making his commitment to the Ducks official, five of his teammates signed with junior colleges or smaller universities.

Twins Rasheed and Rasheem Parks are headed to Pima Community College in Arizona. Jordan Eggleston and Jacob Parker will relocate to Bismarck, N.D., to attend the University of Mary. Beaux Dixon is going to play at Aurora University in Illinois.

“It was good to have them up there,” George said. “They are like my brothers. They all have major talent.”

But George was the undisputed headliner on national signing day at Arbor View. Of the 17 athletes from different sports posing with their letter of intents, George went last.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound stalwart is the only player in town this year going to a program as prestigious as Oregon’s.

“We couldn’t be more excited for him,” Arbor View coach Dan Barnson said. “It’s an accomplishment for our coaches and our school. We’re laying the groundwork for, hopefully, more things to come from Arbor View. Signing with Oregon, whoa. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.”

George played on Arbor View’s varsity team for four years. He also made the preseason All-Sun team in consecutive years.

With the Ducks, he’ll join a team that’s gone to four straight BCS bowl games. Asked what role Oregon’s success played in his decision, however, George responded none.

“It was just that I felt like home when I got there and bonded with the players,” George said. “Before you decide where you’re going to college, you just want to feel at home. That was the only reason why I decided to go to Oregon.”

George was just as happy for his teammates to be a part of the celebration. He said he would keep up with all of them in college.

George will likely have a few more to add to the list before football season kicks off as Arbor View seniors Thomas Newton, Nic Sellars and Frank Johnson are also mulling their options to play next year.

Barnson said among Newton’s options were joining the Parks twins at Pima Community College or accepting a walk-on invitation at UNLV.

“We feel we’ve done a pretty good job with them so now we turn them off to the real world,” Barnson said. “They’ll make us proud. We know they’ll do a good job.”

-Case Keefer

Ricks the star of signing day at Legacy

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Members of the Legacy High football team are photographed after signing their letters-of-intent. They include: Randy Ricks (San Diego State), Joe Murray (Colorado School of the Mines), Jake Martin (Coast Guard Academy) and Chris Campbell (Dixie State College).

At Legacy High in North Las Vegas, four signed letters of intent on national signing day to play college football. It was the second straight year the Longhorn program sent an athlete to the next level, which is a major accomplishment for a school still in its infancy.

The class was highlighted by linebacker Randy Ricks signing with San Diego State. The 6-foot-4, 215 pound Ricks committed to San Diego State during the summer and is one of three from Southern Nevada — the others are Foothill’s Tyler Morris and Canyon Springs’ Donnel Pumphrey — to sign with the Aztecs.

Other Legacy players who signed included: Joe Murray (Colorado School of the Mines), Jake Martin (Coast Guard Academy) and Chris Campbell (Dixie State College).

-Ray Brewer

Scene a little different at state power Gorman, including one player's wise call to pick an Ivy League school

The scene at most Las Vegas Valley high schools is similar on national signing day.

The athlete signing a letter of intent to play college football sits at a conference room table in an office space too small to contain his family and friends. He’s already signed his letter — college coaches, you see, want those bright and early or they start getting nervous — but signs a blank piece of paper to make the ceremony appear authentic.

A school photographer takes a few pictures, the athlete puts on a hat from the school he’ll play for and everyone quickly gets back to their day.

At state power Bishop Gorman, however, the sheer number of players reaching the next level dictates a different setup.

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Athletes from Bishop Gorman High, including seven from the Gaels' state champion football team, are photographed after signing letters of intent on Feb. 6, 2013 in the school's gymnasium. At Gorman, the signing day ceremony celebrates athletes from all sports — not just football.

Seven football players signed letters of intent Wednesday in an after-school ceremony where family and friends filled the bleachers on one side of the school gymnasium. Gorman hosts these signing ceremonies twice each year, bringing together all of the school’s sports.

Wednesday, 17 athletes signed — soccer, baseball, tennis and softball also sent players to the next level.

They sat behind a line of rectangular tables, listening to coaches talk about what makes them a college-capable athlete and re-enacting their signing in unison.

There was star quarterback Anu Solomon, who won 54 games and four state championships, signing with Arizona. And there were five soccer players taking part in the ceremony, signing with schools such as Iowa State (Lynsey Ng) to Barry University in Florida (Katie Turner).

Some players were sure-thing recruits. Ryan Smith, a wide receiver who signed with Duke, is the state’s all-time leading receiver and had a handful of scholarship offers.

But others weren't so certain. They developed into a college talents, surely taking advantage of the long line of college coaches regularly scouting the school.

Take Robert Stanley, for instance.

Stanley, who is just 16 years old, is still very much a work in progress and started developing late in his high school career. His recruiting didn’t spike until the end of the process. He had to be patient before receiving offers from four schools and ultimately signing with Fresno State over offers from hometown UNLV and others.

Senior DE Jake Smirk

Defensive end Jake Smirk talks about the upcoming football season

Then, there is defensive lineman Jake Smirk.

Smirk had an offer from Colorado State and heavy interest from several other Bowl Championship Series teams, but he told recruiters early in the process he wanted to attend an Ivy League school and focus strictly on academics.

He signed Wednesday with Dartmouth, picking it over offers from Cornell and Georgetown.

Most athletes pick a college that will best help them reach their professional football aspirations. Smirk, one of Gorman’s top students for the class of 2013, showed he is wise beyond his years.

“I was thinking about life after football. Dartmouth is a great school, so I will ready,” said Smirk, who wants to study business or engineering.

Other Gorman football players who signed include: Lorenzo Fertitta Jr. (Villanova), Justin Sweet (Colorado State) and Jamir Tillman (Navy).

— Ray Brewer

Donnel Pumphrey's support system credited for helping land scholarship at San Diego State

Of all of the Las Vegas area athletes signing with college football programs Wednesday on national signing day, Canyon Springs High running back Donnel Pumphrey has some of the finest credentials.

The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Pumphrey was the Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year last fall, capping a three-year career in which he rushed more than 3,000 yards and had 60 touchdowns.

He was routinely the best player on the field on Friday night, and with a 4.39 second time in the 40-yard dash, he is expected to continue excelling in college.

But he says he didn’t do it by himself. His support system, whether it was a school counselor or coach or his offensive line, did some of the heavy lifting.

Fittingly, Pumphrey wasn’t alone when he signed his letter of intent with San Diego State. He was surrounded by his circle of trust — teammates, school administrators and a group of community members, including Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly — credited with assisting Pumphrey accomplishing the dream of a college scholarship.

“We came into this race together with DJ,” Canyon Springs coach Hunkie Cooper told supporters before Pumphrey signed. “It’s not over for them, either.”

At Canyon Springs, the challenges of making ends meet or simply finding a warm meal have to be addressed before focusing on football.

As my colleague J. Patrick Coolican observed while following the team this season, “more than 75 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The Clark County School District named it a “turnaround school,” bringing in a new principal and some new staff this fall to try to raise student achievement, which has lagged behind the rest of a district often plagued by mediocrity. Canyon is nearly 90 percent black and Hispanic. Its athletes, the Pioneers, are sometimes derisively called “Thugoneers” by their suburban rivals.”

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Canyon Springs High's Donnel Pumphrey is joined by teammates after signing his letter-of-intent with San Diego State on Feb. 6, 2013.

So, when Cooper says it’s not over, he not only means that the dream of playing college football can still be reached by others, but also the dream of attending college.

Pumphrey’s scholarship is valued at $250,000, which is a fact not lost on his proud family. Forget about the football part of signing day — how a player will impact a college team or how a program’s future looks bright because several talented players have committed to the same school.

If that were the case, we’d mention how Pumphrey rushed for 310 yards on 10 carries in one game this year or how he scored five straight touchdowns against eventual league champion Green Valley.

That’s not all that is important.

Canyon Springs

Canyon Springs lineman Alonzo Pittman lifts running back D.J. Pumphry into the air after a touchdown. Launch slideshow »

Canyon Springs Football 2012

Their school, Canyon Springs High School on Alexander Road in North Las Vegas, near a pig farm whose stench lingers over the campus at times, is one of the poorest in the valley. This is the story of their football season.

For teenagers nationwide, national signing day is a day of hope. If it weren’t for the athletic scholarship, the unfortunate truth is there would be no college.

That’s why Cooper is often more focused on helping a player increase his grade point average than his yards-per-carry average. And that’s why Cooper insisted the others attend Pumphrey’s signing event. All of the players put in a similar amount of work and all have a chance to do great things.

The bond they formed from years of playing high school football will help them achieve when there is no class or football game at Canyon Springs to prepare for because they know how important being a team player is.

“I just feel real blessed,” Pumphrey said of the support. “They are all part of my support system.”

— Ray Brewer

For Desert Pines' Cisneros, a football scholarship is a 'big gift that's going to change my life'

Michael Cisneros has been called “Big Mike” by family and friends since elementary school.

However, by the time he arrived at Desert Pines High four years ago, he realized the moniker wasn’t as cool as it sounded — at 6-foot-1, 285 pounds, he was overweight and unhealthy.

So, with the urging of his father, he approached Jaguars football coach Paul Bennett and asked to join the team.

“I had no idea about football or how to play,” Cisneros said. “I was just playing to lose weight.”

Four years later, he is still big, but he’s more tall and muscular. He developed last fall into one of the top linemen in the Division I-A. Now 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and athletic, Cisneros’ unlikely football journey continued on Wednesday when he signed a letter of intent with Weber State.

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Desert Pines High football player Michael Cisneros, near, and his father, Alfonso, review his letter-of-intent papers to attend Weber State with Jaguars football coach Paul Bennett (left).

There are 16 Las Vegas area players expected to sign today, national signing day, but none of them have faced the long odds Cisneros did in reaching the college gridiron.

Cisneros, who was born in Tijuana, Mexico, a place where football takes a back seat to soccer (futbol), will be the first in his family to attend college. That’s a major accomplishment considering English in his second language, meaning strides on the football field and classroom went hand-in-hand at Desert Pines.

When Cisneros signed his scholarship papers Wednesday at the school, his father, Alfonso Cisneros, repeatedly thanked Bennett for helping his son secure a scholarship.

Both were emotional, realizing their signatures — parents must sign if an athlete is under 18 — would open the doors for Michael Cisneros to do something they previously believed was not obtainable: Receive a college education.

He had recruiting interest from the likes of UNLV, New Mexico and other schools, but they weren’t willing to offer a scholarship because Cisneros is so raw in potential. Then, late last week, with Bennett constantly working the phones, Weber State invited Cisneros for an official recruiting visit. A scholarship offer soon followed.

“It was a gift. It just came out of nowhere,” said Michael Cisneros, who wants to study criminal justice. “It’s just a big gift that’s going to change my life.”

Alfonso Cisneros, a construction worker, won’t take credit for urging his son to play football — his other four siblings, all younger, each play soccer.

“I knew my son was tall and could play football or basketball,” he said. “All thanks to coach Bennett for giving us the opportunity to go to the team.”

Desert Pines, an at-risk school with a high minority enrollment in Northeast Las Vegas, has had the distinction of having a player sign with a college the past six years. With the exception of national power Bishop Gorman, that’s the longest streak in the Las Vegas Valley. For Bennett, what's important is that students from his school are getting a free education and the opportunity to become productive members of society.

Bennett recently retired as the Desert Pines coach to become a Clark County School District administrator, but didn’t stop his work behind the scenes, despite hanging up the whistle in December.

For that, another teenager in Northeast Las Vegas will realize their dreams.

“I'm proud to have known all of the men to have come through Desert Pines,” Bennett said. “I’m honored to have had the opportunity to be in their lives and do great things with them.”

— Ray Brewer

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  1. Very good stories for both Pumphrey and Cisneros. It takes a village.

    I hope they are celebrating their accomplishments as they deserve but I also hope that neither of these gentlemen or any others in a similar spot feel like they've made it. This is a huge thing for both of these gentlemen but I hope they know that they have difficult times ahead from class to field.

    Hopefully they focus on obtaining a degree during their college careers so that they take full advantage of the opportunity they've been afforded. There will be temptations and struggles I really hope they both stayed focused so we can read about them graduating college in four years and going on to good careers on or off the field.

    Pumphrey already has a kid so hopefully he is well aware of the things to avoid that could derail this gift. Kudos to both.

  2. I appreciate the coverage of these student athletes whose dedication and hard work have enabled them to attend college. Well done.