Footballs don’t fly in Liberty Hill

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Junior tackle Lance Champion (#70) blocks for junior tailback Caleb Guerin (#7) downfield against Abilene Wylie. The Panthers fell to the Bulldogs 27-19 on Sept. 26. (Courtesy Photo)

Junior tackle Lance Champion (#70) blocks for junior tailback Caleb Guerin (#7) downfield against Abilene Wylie. The Panthers fell to the Bulldogs 27-19 on Sept. 26. (Courtesy Photo)

By SEAN SHAPIRO

It’s become a fact of life. Footballs don’t fly in Liberty Hill.

Instead of embracing the pass-happy, spread-offense that has dominated the football landscape, Liberty Hill has bucked the trend. At Liberty Hill, the ball stays on the ground, misdirection is a way of life, and quarterbacks are expected to make the correct read on a fullback dive – not throw the ball 40 times a game.

It hasn’t always been that way. But, the years of passing offenses at Liberty Hill are hearsay to anyone currently in the program and, frankly, it was quite forgettable before the system was installed.

After making the playoffs in 1989, Liberty Hill never qualified for the UIL postseason in the 1990s. From 1990 to 2000, Liberty Hill had a combined 42-67-1 record, including a 1-9 mark in 1998 – the worst performance by a Panther team since the 1963 team went 0-10.

But, in 2001, Jerry Vance and his Slot-T offense changed the perception of the program.

“It wasn’t hard to change things since they weren’t very good, and (Liberty Hill) hadn’t been to the playoffs since the 1980s,” Vance said. “So, when I said, ‘This isn’t working. Let’s change it,’ there weren’t too many complaints.”

And there wouldn’t be many complaints for more than a decade with Panthers running out of the Slot-T. The system seemingly fit the attitude of the town — it was simple, but relies on players executing the little things to perfection.

After a 5-5 campaign in Vance’s first season, Liberty Hill won at least 10 games from 2002 to 2008. In 2006 and 2007, the Panthers ran to back-to-back Class 3A championships, and all of a sudden coaches all over the state wanted a piece of the magic that was working in Liberty Hill.

“When you’re winning, and we won 38 straight games, everyone wants it,” Vance said. “During that time it seemed like every week we’d have coaches in here wanting to learn (about the Slot-T). Many would copy us, our district quickly became who could run the Slot-T better, and that wasn’t a problem for us.”

It’s not surprising when the groundwork for the Panthers’ success was first laid in the 1940s.

“It is a long story,” Vance says with a laugh. “It’s kind of funny. God really does open up doors, then shoves you through them.”

Vance’s father-in-law, Morris Payne, played for Chesty Walker at Phillips High School in the 1940s.

They ran the Wing-T at Phillips – which laid the groundwork for an impressive genealogy of coaches, including L.G. Henderson who first introduced Vance to a system that would become Liberty Hill’s calling card almost 50 years later.

Henderson took the Slot-T to Artesia, New Mexico. Vance grew up in nearby Hobbs, which shared a district with Artesia, and always struggled against Henderson’s team.

“They would consistently beat us with smaller kids,” Vance said. “We then met up again a little bit later once I entered coaching.”

It ended up being a decade later. Vance was coaching at Travis Junior High School in Amarillo. Henderson was scheduled to speak at a coaching clinic in the area and Vance’s wife, Deanna, forced her husband to go listen to Henderson at the clinic.

“My wife literally kicked me out of the door,” Vance said. “She said, ‘You need to go meet him, tell him your Morris Payne’s son-in-law.’ So I went, I had to go. I took my resume, gave him my resume and about three weeks later he called and said he had a junior high job for me.”

Vance spent a year in Artesia then followed Henderson to Alice High School in 1974.

From Alice, Vance was hired as the defensive coordinator at Dimmitt High School by Bruce Bush. Bush was a former assistant under Doug Etheridge, who slightly modified the Wing-T, creating the same Slot-T formation that Liberty Hill uses today.

Bush left Dimmit after eight months, but stayed in contact with Vance. A decade later – part of the time that Vance spent out of coaching – Bush needed a defensive coordinator at Gregory-Portland High School.

Vance then spent seven years at Gregory-Portland until March 1997. Two months later, he joined Bush’s staff again at San Marcos High School in time for the 1997 season.

After four years at San Macros, Vance took over his own program at Liberty Hill, with the Slot-T in tow.

“We’ve always run this system,” Vance said. “To me it goes back to my roots off coming into coaching with L.G. Henderson and Artesia … like I said, it was a long convoluted story.”

No matter how convoluted the story, Vance’s success story at Liberty Hill has now spanned 14 seasons. And while the varsity team has a 128-65 record since Vance took over, Liberty Hill’s success starts before kids enter high school.

From Liberty Hill Junior High School to the youth programs, future Panthers buy into the program early.

“That’s part of growing up in this town, from the time they start playing football they understand it,” Liberty Hill Junior High Coach Justin Spraberry said.

In addition to donning purple and gold and calling themselves Panthers, the younger teams run the same plays, have the same philosophy, and even have the same warm-up as the high school varsity team.

“We want every seventh grader to be able to watch the game Friday with their parents and be able to point at their position, and then explain exactly what’s happening,” Vance said.

Spraberry said those goals are being met, and Junior High players are having those conversations with their parents every week at Panther Stadium.

“The high school is more advanced, but junior high kids can watch the game on Friday and pick out probably 75 percent of the plays,” Spraberry said.

This has been the case at the junior high since 2001, while the youth program – Liberty Hill Youth Football and Cheer – was refined in 2012 to better acclimate young athletes into the Panther system.

“I regularly talk to the middle school coaches, and we try to remain current,” said Shawn Lapuszynski, the vice president of football for LHYFC. “Some youth programs are just coaches who want to build the best team and go to Florida (for national championships). Our program is different, it’s about teaching and helping the kids buy into the system as Panthers.”

Right now there are 118 boys playing for six teams in LHYFC. The varsity (fifth and sixth grades), and junior varsity teams (third and fourth grades) both run the Slot-T. The freshman team, which consists of kindergarten through second grade, runs a modified Slot-A — a simplified version of the Slot-T for eight-man football.

Almost all the players in the youth program were born in or after 2001, creating a generation of players that have never experienced life without the system in place.

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