By TAYLOR GRAFFT
TEMPLE — Following their District 8-3A Title, the Liberty Hill Fightin’ Panthers came into the playoffs with a message that they were a force to be reckoned with and ready to make a deep run into the playoffs.
Senior defensive end Chris Robison did just that on the second play of the game Nov. 15 when he sacked Hillsboro quarterback Blake Divin in the end zone of Temple’s Wildcat Stadium for a safety.
“I knew we were going to come out and play hard,” said Liberty Hill Head Coach Jerry Vance. “Obviously, pulling off a safety right off the bat was a good thing for us.”
From then on, the Panthers’ high-powered offense and suffocating defense went on to defeat the Hillsboro Eagles 61-22 and be crowned Bi-District Champions. The Panthers will play Vernon High School in the Area Round Saturday, Nov. 23, at 3 p.m. in Brownwood.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Vance said. “We want our kids to constantly play at a high level. They’ve been doing that pretty much all year long. I would have expected no less of them (against Hillsboro). They’re playing well and have confidence in what they’re doing.”
The Panthers outrushed the Eagles 452 to 91. Liberty Hill also finished with 29 first downs in the game, while Hillsboro finished with only five.
Hillsboro came into the game with a State qualifying 400-meter relay team—three of the members of that relay team were running backs.
“We knew (Deontre Richardson) was fast and knew if we had any kind of breakdown that we’d be punished,” Vance said. “You aren’t going to catch him if he gets a step on you. We had a couple of miscues on the kickoff then on the scoop-and-score. But by and large we did a pretty good job of containing them. I don’t know if we’ve seen anyone as fast as (Richardson) this season.”
Senior fullback Nick Barrios led the Panthers’ ground game with 156 yards rushing and one touchdown. Senior running back Will Fromme added 98 yards rushing and one touchdown.
Senior fullback Cory Ferrell scored the first touchdown of the night on a two-yard run with 9:59 remaining in the first quarter. Ferrell finished with 57 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
The Liberty Hill defense stepped up again on the Eagles’ second offensive possession. The Panthers forced a fumble that was recovered by Cody Johns with 8:23 remaining in the first. Lucas Rizzotto kicked a 27-yard field goal with 5:48 remaining in the first quarter to give Liberty Hill an early 12-0 lead.
On Liberty Hill’s next offensive possession, Fromme broke off three long runs to put the Panthers in the red zone. Ferrell finished the drive when he scored his second touchdown of the night on a one-yard rush up the middle. Rizzotto hit the extra point to make it 19-0 with 11:41 remaining in the first half.
Hillsboro got its first points on the board with 9:12 remaining in the half. Running back Doyle Hughes broke off a 50-yard run down to the Panthers’ 10-yard line. Three plays later, running back Ricky Williams ran it into the end zone from three yards out to cut the Panthers’ lead to 19-7.
On Liberty Hill’s next offensive possession, Barrios broke off runs of 10 and 31 yards to put his team into the red zone. Fromme finished the scoring drive with a four-yard touchdown run on second and goal to make it 26-7 with 6:05 remaining in the half.
Neither offense would score the rest of the quarter. The Panthers took a comfortable lead into the locker room behind Fromme’s 82 yards rushing in the first half.
Liberty Hill’s River Marks returned the opening kickoff 92-yards to the end zone to start the second half behind some great special teams blocking. The Panthers took a 34-7 lead, following a successful two-point conversion on a rush by Hunter Lindsay.
The Panthers’ defense stopped the Eagles on their first second half drive. Senior defensive end John Spurgeon hit Ricky Williams immediately in the backfield for a two-yard loss on third down. On fourth down, the Eagles attempted to line up in an unusual formation, with eight players stacked on the left side, and run a trick play, but were flagged for a false start. The Eagles settled for a punt.
The Panthers’ offense took over and scored quickly. Barrios broke off a 20-yard run to start the drive, before Lindsay scored a 41-yard touchdown run on the next play with 8:51 remaining in the third. A bobbled hold on the extra point saw kicker Rizzotto try to make a play with his arm instead. Unfortunately the ball was intercepted by Chandler Gordon and returned 95 yards for two points. Liberty Hill led 40-9.
Liberty Hill scored a touchdown through the air on the next offensive possession. Quarterback Tyler Vickers found Alex Rosales on a beautiful 17-yard touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone. Following the extra point by Rizzotto, the Panthers took a 47-9 lead.
Hillsboro’s Deontre Richardson returned the ensuing kickoff 82-yards to the end zone to cut the lead to 47-16 with 4:16 remaining in the third.
Logan Barnes scored the Panthers’ fifth rushing touchdown of the night on a four-yard touchdown run on third down. The Panthers increased their lead to 54-16 with 11:15 remaining in the fourth.
The Panthers’ defense forced a turnover on downs after they stopped the Eagles short of the first down marker with 6:54 remaining.
The offense took over, but fumbled four plays later. The fumble was picked up by Deontre Richardson and returned 46-yards for a touchdown. The Eagles missed the extra point and cut the lead to 54-22 with 5:02 remaining.
The Panthers scored their final touchdown with 2:08 remaining in the game. Barrios broke off a 20-yard run on first down to put the Panthers inside the red zone. Barrios then broke free on a 14-yard touchdown run to put the Panthers up 61-22.
The victory secured the Bi-District trophy for the Panthers, and a spot in the next round of the playoffs.