LHHS, China Spring to take first playoff step Friday

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Senior linebacker Christian Anderson (#23) picks off the Bandera quarterback late in the fourth quarter to help secure a 42-23 victory for the Liberty Hill Panthers. (Kathy Canady Photo)

Senior linebacker Christian Anderson (#23) picks off the Bandera quarterback late in the fourth quarter to help secure a 42-23 victory for the Liberty Hill Panthers. (Kathy Canady Photo)

By BOB VARMETTE

It seems simple enough. Win six games, win a state championship.

The hard part of what seems simple is that a team has to win six games in a row against teams that are also trying to win six games in a row.

The Liberty Hill Panthers and China Spring Cougars have earned their spots in the Class 4A Division I postseason field. Only one will keep playing after Friday night, and keep chasing what seems so simple, but yet is so incredibly difficult to reach.

As much as coaches – and players – try to keep to season-long routines, the playoffs are different. The win-or-you’re-done reality of the postseason may not change the X’s and O’s, but it can change the mindsets of the Jimmys and the Joes.

“Yeah, a lot more pressure – every game is a championship, so one game at a time. Have fun, enjoy the ride,” said Liberty Hill senior tailback Hunter Lindsay. “It feels like we’ve gotten to where we were working to. It’s just six more steps.”

Liberty Hill (8-2) and China Spring (5-5) have taken different routes to the bi-district matchup at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bulldawg Stadium in Copperas Cove.

Liberty Hill went 5-0 in District 14-4A Division I, clinching the district title in Week 10 before finishing off its second straight undefeated league schedule with a win in Bandera last week.

China Spring, conversely, was in playoff mode in Week 11, needing a 17-7 win over District 13-4A Division I foe Gatesville to get its invitation.

“We’re a young team – we only have three seniors that see the field,” China Spring coach Mark Bell said. “Being able to beat Gatesville, and to win when we had to, it felt good. Our kids played hard. They were willing to do what they needed to do to make it happen.”

The Cougars, for all their youth, are mindful of tradition. China Spring owns a state title, in 1978, and the Cougars reached a state final as recently as 2007, when they lost to Celina.

The Panthers, too, are mindful of tradition. The reminders are many, the expectations high. That doesn’t change.

One thing that has changed for Liberty Hill is its region and district assignment – the Panthers, in the last UIL realignment, were put in District 14-4A and in Region IV.

It seems like a fact that requires some adjustment. But not really, according to Liberty Hill coach Jerry Vance.

He sees a lot of similarities in Region I and Region IV. Great teams in Region I like Stephenville, Brownwood, Big Spring, Abilene Wylie, solid programs in Region IV like La Vernia and almost-next-door-neighbor Burnet.

“They’re both a long ways from one end to another – they’re both so massive,” Vance said. “I don’t think there’s necessarily an easier region. All of those coaches do a good job.

“We’ve been in both regions so we have a taste for what each of them can do.”

Vance has been at Liberty Hill for 14 years, Bell at China Spring for 17. The teams have played three times.

There was a postseason meeting in 2006 the Panthers won. And the teams played in non-district in 2010 and 2011, with the Cougars winning those games.

That’s interesting background information, but it means little if anything to the players in this year’s game. This is their team, their bi-district game, their chance to take the first of their last six steps of the season.

It’s a precarious step, though, one that severely punishes one misstep.

“We try not to let that affect us, just try to keep it regular so we don’t worry too much and get stressed out,” said Liberty Hill junior fullback Jon Shannon, who leads the Panthers’ productive rushing attack with 1,219 yards and 19 touchdowns on 182 carries. “We just try to get everything fixed.”

Both the Cougars and the Panthers will do what has brought each of them to this point. There’s no point in changing much at this late stage of the season.

So the learning continues with each practice, but the teams move with even more of a purpose.

“We try to learn and advance off of that,” Shannon said. “We mess up a few times, but then we get it right later in the day.

“Every day we just get better,” he said.

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