This season, Liberty Hill played a tough non-district schedule, as it was battle tested during road games against 4-A Leander Rouse, and a well-coached China Spring team.
A 21-0 loss to Rouse in the season opener was the only game of the season Liberty Hill did not have a chance to win late in the fourth quarter.
The following week, Liberty Hill earned its first win against visiting Cuero 14-7. The victory was the first of five home wins for the Panthers as they went undefeated at Panther Stadium in 2011.
Next, Liberty Hill hit the road, this time to the Waco area to take on China Spring. The Panthers had a chance to win with 18.9 seconds left in the game after Jonathan Johnston scored a rushing touchdown from two yards out, pulling Liberty Hill within one point (13-12) of the Cougars.
The idea to tie the game never entered the mind of Liberty Hill Head Coach Jerry Vance. In typical Vance fashion, he decided to go for the win.
On the two-point conversion attempt, senior Bo Simpson was stopped short of the goal line by the Cougar defense, ending the furious comeback attempt by the Panthers.
“We had some pretty high expectations and kind of stumbled out of the starting blocks,” said Vance. “I thought our kids really responded well afterwards and matured as the season went along. Other then that first game we lost three games by a total of six points. That says an awful lot about our kids and coaches and about their commitment to the program to keep the tradition of winning alive.”
Vance attributes a part of the slow start to a young offensive line.
“It had a lot to do with it,” he said. “I’m not one who likes to make excuses but we just didn’t have them where we need to have them at that time.”
After the 13-12 loss to China Spring on Sept. 9, the Panthers went on a five-game winning streak beginning with a 27-20 win over Rockdale at Panther Stadium. The game was highlighted by senior fullback Brandan Corn’s 259 yard and two touchdown performance.
Junior Jadon Boatright also made the game memorable with an 82-yard kickoff return. And as was the case in the last home game against Cuero, senior safety Cody Turner intercepted a pass to seal the Panthers’ 27-20 victory over the Rockdale Tigers.
The next game against Mexia, it was Turner’s turn to make an impact on special teams as he returned a kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown. Liberty Hill also scored on two Corn touchdowns, a Simpson TD and a passing touchdown from Kyle Hester to Johnston and another from freshman Brandon Wells to Jesse Perez. When the dust settled, Liberty Hill was on top 43-13 for a comfortable win.
The Panthers would hit the road again, this time for the 25-3A District opener.
Two halves were not enough to decide the outcome of the game with each team winning a half by scoring 14 points a piece. Liberty Hill seemingly dominated the first half, with home-team Salado outplaying the Panthers for most of the second.
After the Eagles coughed up the ball on a potential game-wining drive inside the Panther 20, Liberty Hill ran out the clock and took the game to overtime where the Panthers won in 20-14 in a thrilling district opener.
On the Eagles’ overtime possession, a clipping penalty and another five-yard flag pushed them back to where rotation quarterback and kicker Ryan Simmons pushed a 47-yard field goal attempt wide right.
When it was Liberty Hill’s turn, sophomore Cory Ferrell capped his 90-yard performance by punching the ball in from three yards out for the game-winning touchdown.
It marked the first time all season, the high-scoring Salado offense did not score in the first half, as the Liberty Hill defense was stifling.
Liberty Hill then ran off a 41-14 win over Taylor, headlined by Johnston’s 234 yards rushing, before traveling to Llano where the “Purple Thunder” put on a show.
The defense stymied the Yellow Jackets by completely shutting them out by not allowing a single first down all night long, let alone a score. With the Panther offense clicking, Liberty Hill won handily 38-0 to improve to 3-0 in District 25-3A.
On Oct. 28, Liberty Hill was pitted against the first-place Lampasas Badgers at Badger Stadium for what played out to be the district championship game.
In what was a contest between clearly the cream of the 25-3A crop, the Panthers and Badgers were all tied up 7-7 at the half.
Liberty Hill took the lead 17-14 with 2:36 left to play, but a pass interference penalty gave the Badgers the ball at the Panther 14.
When all was said and done, in what was a back and forth battle, the Lampasas badgers outlasted the Liberty Hill Panthers, scoring the go-ahead points with 23 seconds left to win the game 21-17.
Finally the Panthers faced their most bitter rival, the Burnet Bulldogs.
In their final tune up before the playoffs, the Panthers out-manned the Bulldogs on Senior Night, scoring the most points of the season in a 65-33 blowout.
Johnston finished the game with a game-high 220 yards and two touchdowns on only 12 carries to lead the Panthers’ offense. He headed into the playoffs with 1,412 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 9.4 yards per carry.
In the bi-district round of the 2011 UIL 3A Playoffs, the Panthers faced the team that ousted them from last year’s playoffs 21-20, the Geronimo Navarro Panthers.
Liberty Hill exacted revenge and emerged as the top cats on the turf of Bastrop Memorial Stadium Nov. 11, dominating time of possession in the second half and holding Navarro to one score in a 35-14 well-rounded win for the Panthers.
Johnston ended the game with 203 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries to lead all rushers. But the state’s top rusher awaited the Panthers in the next round of the playoffs.
The undefeated Devine Workhorses boast workhorse running back Joseph Sadler.
“We knew we were playing a very good football team,” Vance said. “As we started the week I told the kids that this was the best football team that we were going to play. They were very athletic, determined, physical and well coached.”
In the 2011 regular season Sadler totaled 3,061 yards and a mind-blowing 46 rushing TDs, 3 rec. TDs, 49 PATs, and 62 point conversions equaling a total of 355 points for Devine, while averaging 12.82 yards per carry.
But Liberty Hill’s defense was up to the task, holding a Devine team that averaged over 38 points per game to 21 points, and not allowing Sadler to break the state record for points scored. The defense gave the offense an opportunity to win.
Down by one point with 4:08 left to play, Liberty Hill had the ball and was driving. Following a 39-yard run by senior Brandan Corn to the Devine 47, the Panthers were in prime position to complete the comeback, down 21-20.
However, on a fourth-and-six from the Warhorse 43, freshman Brandon Wells rolled out of the pocket but was unable to find an open man as he was wrapped up by Devine defenders, turning the ball over on downs.
Liberty Hill did not get another shot to score, and fell 21-20. Devine went on to win its next matchup against Wharton 56-43 and will face Wimberley in the state quarterfinals Saturday, Dec.
“We knew it was going to be a fight and obviously disappointed that we didn’t come out on top,” Vance reminisced. “We made some mistakes and if you play a team like that at this level and make mistakes you are going to be in trouble.”
Despite the tough loss in a winnable game, Liberty Hill can be proud of the season the Panthers had and the players who took them there.
“This was a special senior class with their leadership and them setting some high goals and reaching for them,” Vance explained. “There are a lot of people that will sit there and criticize a team and the kids because of a loss. But there are very few people in this day and age that are confident in themselves to put on a performance (like they did) in front of 8,000 people. Win lose or draw they played their hearts out.”
Liberty Hill High School varsity football will be back in full swing Aug. 6, 2012, and Coach Vance is already looking forward to the season.
“This next senior class has some big shoes to fill,” he said. “It will be fun to watch and see who steps up.”