By KEITH SPARKS
PORT LAVACA — Last Friday, the Panthers traveled more than three hours for a non-district game against the 5A Port Lavaca Calhoun Sandcrabs, a team that runs the ball just as often as the Panthers do with an option-heavy Veer offense.
From the jump, it looked to be an electrifying matchup, as Calhoun running back Steve Johnson took off for a 75-yard touchdown run on the very first play of the game.
Not to be outdone, Liberty Hill running back Elijah Davis took off for his own 75-yard touchdown run on the Panthers’ second play of the game. After just 38 seconds, the score was tied at 7-7.
On their next possession, Calhoun was stopped on fourth down as the Panther defense forced a fumble, but Liberty Hill was unable to capitalize as they turned the ball over on downs, as well, failing to get the first on a fourth-and-2 run.
Calhoun moved the ball well when they got it back, as running back Xavier Rivera made his way to the opposing 36-yard line with a 52-yard run. With the ball at the Panthers’ 5-yard line, Calhoun had a chance to score, but a false start and a 9-yard loss on a fumble moved them back to the 15-yard line on fourth down. An incomplete pass gave the Panthers the ball back on yet another turnover on downs.
Once again, the Panthers were unable to capitalize on the Sandcrabs’ mistakes, as a Liberty Hill fumble was recovered by Calhoun at the 47-yard line to give them the ball back in a game that was still tied at 7-7.
The game continued to be a defensive battle until midway through the second quarter, as each team was forced to punt until Calhoun was able to run the ball in from 10 yards out with 4:23 left in the second quarter to take a 14-7 lead.
On Liberty Hill’s next possession, quarterback Brenden Ketchem took it upon himself to even the score at 14 apiece with a 13-yard touchdown run on a fake handoff keeper with 2:14 left in the second quarter.
Calhoun gave the Panthers a chance to score once again before halftime with a fumble at the 50-yard line and a minute to play, but they were unable to beat the clock as Dalton Phifer was stopped at the 1-yard line on a screen pass as time expired.
The inability to capitalize on mistakes was the story of the first half, and Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker took full responsibility.
“We can come up with a lot of excuses, but the bottom line is that we just didn’t get it done, and I’m to blame,” Walker said. “I tell everybody the players are 2-0 and I’m 0-1. I didn’t call a very good game. I obviously didn’t have them ready. As coaches, we’re going to try to get better. That’s kind of been our focus is how can we help these young men be more successful?”
The Panthers started the second half on a sour note, fumbling the kickoff and allowing Calhoun to recover and take the first possession of the second half in Liberty Hill territory. A simple pitch to Rivera on the outside from 12 yards out gave the Sandcrabs a 21-14 lead less than two minutes into the third quarter.
According to Walker, the Panthers can beat anybody if they play solid, disciplined football. If they continue to make mistakes like they did against Calhoun, they can lose to anybody.
“I’ve been telling them all along, ‘If we play really good, we can probably beat anybody. If we play bad, anybody can beat us,’” he said. “We can’t take things for granted. I hate saying this in papers and stuff like that, but I think if we play them 10 times, they beat us once. It was just one of those nights. No excuses, they beat us, but I don’t think I’ve ever been beat by a team that I think we’re four or five touchdowns better than in my career, and that’s what happened.”
The Panthers were forced to punt on their next possession, pinning Calhoun inside their own 10-yard line, but Liberty Hill allowed quarterback Marshal Batts to get loose for a 61-yard run to the opposing 34-yard line, which Rivera capitalized on to take a 28-14 lead late in the third quarter.
Liberty Hill struggled to execute once again late in the third, allowing Ketchem to be sacked twice, forcing them into third and 17. The Panthers punted on fourth and 12, giving Calhoun’s Jesse Lopez an opportunity to show what he could do.
Lopez scattered for 34 yards to the Panthers’ 21-yard line, then took it in himself for the score to take a 34-14 lead with 11:16 left in the fourth quarter after a missed extra point.
Liberty Hill came roaring back early in the fourth quarter, thanks in large part to a 37-yard run by fullback Hunter Oncken, followed by a 21-yard touchdown run from his backup, Ethan Thom, who trucked a defender near the goal line before waltzing into the end zone.
Oncken, who finished with 70 yards on only eight carries, suffered headaches in the first quarter and wasn’t able to play for most of the second half, and that wasn’t their only issue in the backfield. Davis, who finished with 120 yards on only 10 carries, was throwing up during the game, and Kyle Harrison, who got the lion’s load of the carries with 21 for 116 yards, lost feeling in his left arm for a few series.
“We don’t want to use excuses, but man, oh man are we beat up,” Walker said.
Friday’s injuries and illnesses, combined with the preseason injury to last year’s starting running back Reid Sanders, has made it tough for the Panthers to find any consistency on the offensive end.
“We’ve had more injuries this year than I’ve had in my last 10 years combined,” Walker said. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it was their offseason last year, I don’t know if it was just bad luck. Right now, we’re not clicking because of juggling players. I think we had seven or eight standing on the sideline in shorts. We’re just bringing people up from JV and playing them, and they have no varsity experience. It’s been tough.”
Down 34-21, Liberty Hill recovered their own onside kick with 8:46 left in the game, and were able to make it a one-possession game with a 25-yard touchdown run by Harrison with 6:53 left to play.
The Panthers got a stop, but Calhoun was able to take some time off the clock by continuing to run the ball. With 3:48 left to play, the Panthers were down just six with the ball at their own 40-yard line.
Liberty Hill was forced to go for it on fourth and 14 with 1:40 left, but a rare pass by the Panthers fell incomplete after a controversial no call with a lot of contact from Calhoun’s secondary.
The Panther defense got yet another stop, and Liberty Hill’s clock management allowed the Sandcrabs to take less than a minute off the clock, giving Liberty Hill one more opportunity to take the lead. Down six with 52 seconds left, the Panthers had the ball and some momentum, but the snap sailed past Ketchem, and Calhoun was able to take the fumble all the way into the end zone to take a 41-28 lead and, ultimately, the win.
One of the steps Walker and his coaching staff have taken to refocus after Friday’s loss is turning off the music in the locker room in order to “get back to work.”
“I hope we realize it’s not much fun losing,” Walker said. “I think they get the picture. When you don’t win, it hurts until you can get another W. If you put as much time and energy and effort as we put into this, there’s nothing you can say to make it better.”
Following this Thursday’s matchup with Austin Anderson, the Panthers will have a bye week that will hopefully allow them to get healthy.
Liberty Hill’s next game against Anderson will take place at House Park in Austin this Thursday, Sept. 28, at 7:30 p.m.