By KATE LUDLOW
If churches draw the crowds on Sunday, then football stadiums surely rule Friday nights. For 33 years, Panther Stadium has been the gridiron cathedral where, year after year, Liberty Hill has gathered to watch the events unfold on the field.
Some come for the game, some come to hear the marching band, and some come for the concession stand Frito pie. But they all gather to share in a sense of community that can only be found at a small-town football stadium.
In 1977, Liberty Hill was just coming off a five-year period where there was no high school. Due to small attendance, a large tax was necessary to keep the high school students here, and a Tax League was formed to protest that.
Parents like James Hanley, remember fighting to get the tax passed. I worked to get the school board off dead-center,” says Hanley, who by his own account worked out the deal with Georgetown High School to send Liberty Hill students there.
“For a time, they (the school board) wanted us to consolidate with Bertram, who was in the same small boat. We would have consolidated with them, and then a high school would have been built for us over in Joppa. Well, that made no sense to me.”
During this time, the elementary and middle school students still went to school here. They attended a two-story red brick building, which stood where the Liberty Hill Intermediate School now stands.
Charles Canady was a student there, and remembers its worn state.
“I remember being in a school play, and the stage was on the second floor. There was a lot of talk that it might actually collapse,” he said.
That building was demolished, and the current LHIS building was built. That got the ball rolling on Liberty Hill gaining its reaccreditation, according to Hanley.
On Nov. 19, 1977, Liberty Hill voters passed a $925,000 bond to build a new elementary school, stadium, field house, baseball field, and parking facilities. Liberty Hill Elementary was built at its current location, but it was a much different building.
“At the time, the only thing there was the cafeteria, and about six classrooms,” said Andy Pogue, Liberty Hill ISD Facilities and Maintenance Director, who was hired by the district in 1981.
When Charlie Braun was hired to be Head Football Coach and Athletic Director in 1978, he arrived to find the football team had no stadium.
“We played all of our games on the road. I booked the fields over in Leander, though we did play one game over in Georgetown. That was against Thorndale,” he said.
The district had a small field built, roughly where the tennis courts near LHIS are now. Former School Board Member James Pogue remembers playing there when he was in school.
“I graduated in 1966 and the football field we played on was Goathead/Stingnettle Stadium,” he said.
That field was not in use at the time of Braun’s arrival.
As construction projects are apt to do, near the end, the school board had reached the end of the money, leaving the stadium with little more than a caliche track with a field house and a couple sets of bleachers. So, the school board, superintendent, principals and Coach Charlie Braun rolled up their sleeves and went to work.
“We started meeting up at night, building whenever we could. We were paying for a lot of the materials ourselves,” said Braun. “A lot of credit goes to Richard Ware (then-school board member). A lot of people don’t know how hard that guy worked to get this thing built.”
The motley crew worked to get the press box built, bringing materials up the bleachers one piece at a time. When they were finished, the press box had two rooms for press and the announcer, and space for filming on the rooftop. The bleachers held 1,500 upon completion, Braun said.
The first year in the new Panther Stadium was successful. Coach Braun led the Panthers to a District Championship, defeating the Rogers Eagles. They ended the season 8-2. For their first game in the new stadium, the school held a ceremony, where former University of Texas Basketball Coach Abe Lemons gave a speech.
“I think Berry Lennox, who was on the school board, knew him, and that’s why he came out. It was a big time,” recalls Pogue.
Over the years, the stadium received upgrades, courtesy of either the Maintenance Department or local volunteers.
“I remember Gilbert Vickers digging ditches for underground electricity around 1989,” says Braun.
According to Andy Pogue, the all weather track was installed in 1991. In 1996, an additional 500 seat were added to the visitor side. In 2006, 700 additional seats were added to the home side, and in 2009, 300 more were added. Pogue says his maintenance department works hard during football season to keep the field in top condition.
“There’s always grass that needs to be mowed, the fields need to be painted. On Friday nights, we assist with parking, and trash picking up,” he said. Over the weekend, crews from the Williamson County Community Service and Corrections Program come out to finish up the trash cleanup, in exchange for community service hours.
When current Head Coach and Athletic Director Jerry Vance came to Liberty Hill in 1999, the feel of Panther Stadium helped him make his decision.
“To be real honest, I was tickled to death. I had interviewed for several jobs before and one of the things I always did was walk out onto the football field. If it felt like home and felt like this is where you were, okay. I turned down a lot of jobs because you walk out there and (think) not here. Then you walk out there at Panther Stadium and you go, ‘this has got some personality and this has got a chance of (being the place) to do what we want to do.’”
Under Coach Vance, the Liberty Hill Panther football team went to back-to-back State Championships in 2006 and 2007. Vance worked to transform a team that had not been all that successful.
“Liberty Hill had not experienced a lot of success when we got here. They had streaks or periods of one or two (good) years. Part of our whole challenge we thought was to come in with some consistency and bring in what we thought was a winning attitude and a winning formulation,” Vance said. “Kids bought into it and the first year we were (5-5). We celebrated that because it was a non-losing season. And then we started on the roll the next year where going into Burnet we were 9-0. So, once you have success you want to have a friend that says you have to win sooner or later and the sooner the better. That’s the key, to have some success and build on that for the next year and the years after that.”
All agree the current stadium is simply too small for the team.
“They didn’t see us getting that big,” said Braun. “Austin kept coming. Now you can sit in the lot for 45 minutes and not get to the highway.”
This is the last football season that the current Panther Stadium will be used for varsity games. Construction of the new stadium will be complete by next season, and fans will enjoy will enoy a new facility, which features parking for 1,100 vehicles, a football stadium for 5,000, an 8-lane track, two practice fields, a baseball field and softball field (both with seating for 500), tennis courts and field houses, a weight room and concession stands.
The fate of Panther Stadium is currently undecided.
“I don’t know. We have some options that I need to talk with Dr. Hart about,” said Vance. “Schools that have two fields like this a lot of times keep that other field for the junior high and just play their sub-varsity games there. I don’t know if we want to do that because that would necessitate two sets of officials and two sets of everything. So, I’m not exactly sure what we’re going to do about it. We have some other options. (We want to) maintain it obviously because it’s a great field. We’ve been in discussion about it, but haven’t made any decisions.”
“They’re putting turf in at the new stadium. Surely they won’t want to go back and forth, so I don’t know if it can even be a practice field,” Braun said.
Over the years, it’s not just the stadium that has changed.
“This was a little bitty school when I was here,” said Braun. “We had four men coaches, and one man and one woman coached all the girls. We mowed our own grass, painted lines, moved our own water. We had to win Friday or we got fired. If we didn’t do well, there’d be a pack of ‘em in my office on Monday calling for my job.”
But despite the pressures, Braun remembers those interesting times as amusing. With a smile, he described an incident that nearly stranded the entire team.
“We were playing in Blanco. One of our players ended up with a broken collarbone, and had to be taken to the hospital. Dalton (West, former coach and former high school principal) went with him, and had the bus key in his pocket. After the game, we were stuck. So, I had to hot-wire the bus and get us all home. He (Dalton) said it wasn’t until after he got home that he even realized he had the key.”
As time goes on, it’s easy to become rooted in tradition, but Coach Vance says he is looking forward to starting new ones.
“People are going to say that you are leaving all these ghosts and all that tradition. But you know, you have to start some new ones. So we’re going to roll out and start some new ones. It’s going to be a showcase place and I think our kids are going to take a whole lot of pride in it,” he said.
Panther football season starts at 7:30 p.m. August 31 in Giddings. The Panthers will scrimmage against La Grange and Sealy August 17 and 24, respectively. The Sealy scrimmage will be hosted by Liberty Hill in Panther Stadium.