Defensive improvements make Panthers legitimate State Championship contender
By Keith Sparks
The success of Liberty Hill’s Slot-T offense has long been well documented. The Panthers’ top-five state ranking is almost entirely due to their dominant run game, but the key to their postseason success may lie on the other side of the ball.
In order to beat the other teams among the top of the state rankings, they’ll have to stop some of the most prolific offenses in the state.
According to Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker, the Panthers’ first district game against Fredericksburg, which they won 69-7, was the best defensive performance he has seen from his team since he arrived more than two years ago.
While Friday’s 55-27 win over Lampasas wasn’t quite as impressive, the defense remained solid, giving up most of those points late in the game once the result was all but decided.
“They’re starting to play like we thought they could all along,” Walker said after the win over Lampasas. “Playing with a little more passion, playing faster, playing with a little chip on their shoulder. When they do that, they’re pretty good, and we’ve been telling them that all along. We’re not surprised with how they’ve been playing.”
According to starting linebacker Brenden Ketchem, the defensive performance against Fredericksburg was a testament to the bonding that took place during their extended break over two consecutive bye weeks.
“We had a lot of time to prepare obviously, with those two weeks off, and over those two weeks, a lot of bonding happened,” Ketchem said. “We play as a team on defense and we play as one unit. When we play as those, we play our best. I really think that’s what stuck out to me most during the Fredericksburg game is our trust in each other. We played as one big unit. We weren’t individuals out there doing separate things. We were working as one big team.”
Defensive Coordinator Kent Walker credited the work that took place over the Panthers’ two straight bye weeks, as well, which allowed his defense to get healthy and rest their legs. Now, Walker said, his defense is able to play the game instinctively instead of having to think about their responsibilities on each and every play.
“I was worried about being rusty, but we came in fresh and we were healthy, defensively,” Walker said. “We came in and were able to play fast, and that’s what we try to do on defense is play fast. Coach Walker talks about being a purple blur on offense, but we try to do the same thing on defense. We want to play fast. There’s not any thinking going on anymore. They’re able to go out there and play the game without thinking.”
At first glance, the Panthers’ pre-district 52-51 loss to Hutto may seem like a terrible defensive performance, but starting linebacker Ketchem looks at that game as a sort of turning point for the defense, making it clear against a top-ranked 5A offense what the Panthers’ weaknesses were on the defensive end.
“It really opened our eyes and gave us a look at a really great quarterback and really great offensive unit,” Ketchem said. “It was a really good look for us to go against such a high-powered offense and, in a way, expose certain weaknesses that we can really focus on and mend and build upon.”
Defensive Coordinator Kent Walker pointed to the Hutto loss, as well, as a key moment for his defense. Despite the heartbreaking loss, playing a top-ranked 5A team that closely gave them the confidence that “they can play with anybody in the state of Texas.”
“I think that game really helped us tremendously and showed us that we can play with them,” Walker said. “I knew we could play with them, I just don’t know if our kids thought that, initially. I think now they know they can play with anybody in the state of Texas. We should have always thought that, but sometimes it takes going out there and doing it before they start believing.”
All season, the talk about the defense has been about players learning how to play new positions for the first time. After six games, that’s no longer the case. Kent Walker chalked the improvement up to increased experience for those on the defense that needed it, which has come naturally over time.
“I always feel there’s still room for improvement, and we’ll continue getting better, but I just feel like it’s a process, and it’ll continue to be a process,” Walker said, “but the kids have a much better understanding of what they’re supposed to do on each play. We’re just able to react a lot quicker right now.”
Considering the road to a State Championship may go through the likes of Waco La Vega, Carthage, Argyle, and other perennial contenders, the defense will need to continue to improve for the Panthers to have a shot. If their rate of improvement continues along the path it has thus far, Liberty Hill will be in good shape.