By TAYLOR GRAFFT
BROWNWOOD — The Liberty Hill Fightin’ Panthers’ fantastic season, which included a 10-2 record, a District 8-3A Title and Bi-District Championship, ended Saturday after the Panthers fell to a very physical and tough Vernon Lions team.
Liberty Hill fans braved somewhat hazardous road conditions and cold temperatures Saturday to cheer on the team in Brownwood.
“Pure and simple, Vernon beat us,” said Liberty Hill Head Coach Jerry Vance. “I will give them all the credit in the world. They played better than us and so we lost.”
The Panthers struggled in the first half on offense to get any momentum going and only picked up two first downs going into halftime.
On defense, Liberty Hill forced three first-half turnovers to keep the Panthers in the game. Senior safety River Marks put in an outstanding performance in which he picked off two passes and scored once on a kickoff return.
“River played an outstanding game and it was a tremendous effort for the young man,” Coach Vance said. “One of the many success stories from the senior class.”
The senior class that led the Panthers this season showed great leadership on and off the field. Vance says that this has been one of his favorite groups of kids to coach.
“This was an exceptional bunch of seniors,” he said. “We have not had this kind of leadership in a long time. They led in a way that everyone, from sophomores to the seniors, cared for each other. They truly understood the meaning of ‘hold the rope’. They’re a great bunch of young men that matured more than anyone will ever know. I have been fortunate to watch them go from a 2-8 freshman team to a 10-2 senior team. That’s quite a turn around in three years. It just goes to show you what hard work, dedication, and believing in one another can do.”
Even though the season is over for this senior class, they will always be able to remember the memories and success that they achieved together on the field. All season long, Panther fans had the opportunity to see this group handle adversity and rise to the occasion when their numbers were called.
From a second-half comeback victory over Gatesville to a last-second interception against their heated-rival Burnet, each game was memorable
Against Vernon, the Lions jumped out to a 7-0 lead with 7:32 remaining in the first quarter. The Lions opened their first offensive possession with a 43-yard pass to put them down inside the red zone. Five plays later, Danny Valverde rushed in from one yard out to give the Lions the lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, senior River Marks ran behind some great special teams blocking and returned it 90 yards to the end zone to tie the game 7-7 with 7:16 remaining.
After the Lions took over on their next possession and drove down into the red zone, Marks stepped in front of a pass on third and long and intercepted Lions’ quarterback David Garza on the goal line.
The Liberty Hill offense went three-and-out after being backed up to the goal line and punted the ball away. The Panthers’ defense came through again and forced their second interception of the first half when junior Nick Hernandez got his hand on Garza’s pass and tipped it to junior Jason Reeves who returned the interception to the 11-yard line.
Vernon took a 13-7 lead after Orlando Haymon rushed in from nine yards out with 4:12 remaining in the first half. The Lions’ Francisco Cardenas missed the extra point.
The Panthers’ offense finally put together a great drive, picking up two first downs on the possession. The Panthers were just outside the red zone, but fumbled the ball away on second down. The Lions’ Eli Varela recovered the ball at the 27-yard line with 2 minutes remaining.
Vernon tried to drive down the field again to increase their lead before halftime, but the Panthers’ secondary came through for the third time of the first half. The Lions reached into their bag of tricks and attempted a halfback pass from the 33-yard line, but the pass was picked off by River Marks, for his second interception of the game, with 0:46 seconds left.
The Panthers went into halftime trailing 13-7, but still in the ballgame.
The Lions received the ball to start the second half and drove down to just outside the red zone. On third and short, junior linebacker Jacob Covington hit Haymon in the backfield for a one-yard loss. The Lions decided to go for it on fourth down, but sophomore linebacker Colton Cunningham and Jason Reeves combined to stop Garza short of the first down.
The Panthers took over on downs, but couldn’t find any running room and were forced to punt the ball away.
Vernon increased their lead to 20-7 when Garza hit Valverde on a seam route for a 45-yard touchdown. Cardenas converted the extra point with 4:06 remaining in the third quarter.
The Panthers’ offense took over at their own 27-yard line following a decent return by River Marks. Two plays later, the Panthers fumbled the ball again and it was picked up by Cardenas and returned 31 yards for a touchdown. The Lions led 27-7 with 3:10 remaining.
Vernon scored the final touchdown with 7:16 remaining in the game. Garza kept the ball on a quarterback sweep to the left. He looked to be stopped and out of room on the sideline, but broke through and scored a 56-yard touchdown to give the Lions a 34-7 lead.