Lessons may help Panthers end Carthage’s 40-game streak

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By Keith Sparks

The Panthers have had their fair share of blowout victories, but they’ve also faced some adversity this season, particularly against teams like Hutto and Sealy.

At this point in the season, leading up to a matchup with a team that’s won 40 games in a row, the lessons learned in those games should start to pay dividends.

Although he’d prefer to blow every opponent out for his own mental health, Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker said there’s something to be said for playing in close, competitive ballgames to prepare for a deep playoff run.

“You need to be in that kind of stuff to prepare yourself for it,” Walker said. “If you’re beating the tar out of everybody and playing backups at halftime, it definitely doesn’t get you ready for a team like Carthage. You’ve got to be able to play four quarters and have a little adversity. We feel like we’ve had that. I’d much rather beat everybody by 60 and have to deal with that when the time comes, but there is something to be said for winning tough ballgames.”

With that being said, Carthage shouldn’t be compared to Hutto or Sealy. While those two teams have certainly been successful, Carthage’s success is unparalleled in the current Texas high school football landscape.

“There’s no doubt that those games helped us prepare for this week, but Carthage isn’t Hutto or Sealy,” Walker said. “They’re another beast in themselves. You can take what you learned playing those teams that were ranked and highly touted, undefeated, all that stuff, but when you go play somebody like Carthage, you’re 100-percent focused on yourself, knowing that you can’t make the mistakes that we’ve made lately.”

The last two playoff games, in particular, the Panthers haven’t looked as sharp as expected in the first half, leading to halftime deficits in both games. While their struggles against Sealy were simply due to Sealy playing good football, Walker thinks his team may have overlooked La Vernia.

“We haven’t played very well, offensively, the last two games in the first half,” Walker said. “We’ve turned the ball over, we’ve missed some blocking assignments. I don’t know if we were just wound up tight or we overlooked somebody. I don’t think we overlooked Sealy, but I think we may have overlooked La Vernia, because we had beaten them the year before so badly and came out there complacent. I think that shows in high school football if you come out complacent.”

If one thing is for certain about Friday’s State Semifinal matchup, it’s that the Panthers will not overlook Carthage.

“The thing about playing somebody like Carthage is you don’t have to tell the kids it’s a big game,” Walker said. “They read it. They know who they are. We have a lot of football fans in our locker room that watched the State Championship game the last couple years, so they know what’s coming. Obviously, we’ll preach to them about ball security and winning the turnover battle and special teams and that kind of stuff, but it just comes down to your kids making more plays than their kids. If we don’t show up, they have the potential to embarrass us.”

While some coaches will tell you a long win streak makes them nervous, considering the pressure that builds with every win, Walker doesn’t think that’s the case. Speaking from his own experience with the Panthers’ 30-plus-game win streak in the mid-2000s, Walker actually thinks that active win streak gives the Bulldogs an advantage.

“I think being on a streak like that is really good, to be honest, and the reason I say that is because those kids don’t want to be the ones to break it,” Walker said. “You get a little more fight. It’s always in your mind that there’s a little more pride, a little more fight, a little more want-to, because you don’t want to be that team that has that streak broken, so you come out with a little more attitude. I think it helped us beat some teams at times that we shouldn’t have beat. They beat Pleasant Grove with 3.1 seconds left this year, Carthage did, and that’s kind of what you do when you’re on a streak like that. Sometimes the ball bounces your way because you’re playing so hard and you’re refusing to lose.”

The Bulldogs do have the potential to embarrass the Panthers, no doubt, but so did Hutto, according to most Austin media. Despite taking a one-point overtime loss to the Hippos, the Panthers’ efforts against Hutto showed Walker one thing: the Panthers don’t give up.

“We don’t give up,” Walker said. “We’re going to fight until the last whistle. That doesn’t surprise me with the group of young men I have. That’s who they are. That’s what they’re going to do, so I think we’re going to show up and we’re going to play four quarters. I’m a big proponent of not worrying about the scoreboard and just playing the game snap for snap. We’ll either get on the bus happy or sad.”

It won’t surprise many people if Carthage jumps out to an early lead, but that doesn’t concern Walker. As they have all season, the Panthers will worry only about themselves and their own execution, and if they play the way they’re coached to play, they have a shot at making it to the State Championship.

“We just have to keep plugging away and not worrying about what the score is,” Walker said. “Nobody wins at halftime, but we can’t fall behind good teams at half and think we’re going to come back every time either, though. We’ve got to have a good first half this week.”

All win streaks must come to an end eventually, and if the Panthers can return to form, they may very well be the ones to end it.

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