LHHS dominates Burnet for 4th straight year
By KEITH SPARKS
For the fourth year in a row, Panther fans will have bragging rights over their neighbors to the west in Burnet. Liberty Hill’s varsity football team took care of business against the Bulldogs last Friday night with a 44-23 victory over their long-time rivals with an all-around dominant offensive performance.
The Bulldogs’ high-powered offense looked to be in good form from the get-go, as starting quarterback Koby Edwards threw a 56-yard touchdown pass less than two minutes into the first quarter, giving the Bulldogs a 6-0 head start after a missed extra point.
The Panthers answered quickly, though, as junior fullback Hunter Oncken took off for 46 yards on Liberty Hill’s first offensive play of the game, followed by a 23-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Reid Sanders, leading to a 7-6 Panther lead less than two minutes after the Bulldogs’ first score.
In the crowded Liberty Hill backfield, Oncken got the lion’s load, or panther’s load, in this case, carrying the ball a team-high 16 times for 127 yards and a touchdown against the Bulldogs.
“I think Hunter is one of those kids waiting in the wings,” Panthers’ Head Coach Jerry Vance said. “The more times you give him the ball, the more times he has a chance to experience that Friday night game, that speed, and the more experience he has, the better he’s going to be.”
On the Bulldogs’ next possession, Edwards, their starting quarterback, was flattened by a huge hit from Panthers’ safety Logan Lester. Edwards had to be helped off the field with a leg injury, and wouldn’t return to the game.
The next score didn’t come until the second quarter, as Sanders took off for a 75-yard touchdown run on third and two to increase the Panther lead to 14-6 with 10:17 left to play in the first half.
Sanders was able to build on his breakout season with an impressive 110-yard and two-touchdown performance on only five carries, giving him an average of 22.2 yards per carry on the night.
After allowing a field goal, the Panther offense took the field up 14-9. Liberty Hill quarterback Garrett Wright threw his first touchdown of the game to Carson Landry after being set up by a 57-yard run from running back Freddie White, giving the Panthers a 21-9 lead with 4:40 left in the second quarter.
The Panthers’ game against Burnet was arguably their most complete offensive performance of the season, as Wright threw for a season-high three touchdowns and 110 yards on only seven attempts, in addition to the backfield’s combined 367 total rushing yards.
“After last year, it was abundantly clear that we really needed to be able to throw and move the ball through the air,” Vance said. “Like I’ve said before, that’s one of the things that we made a priority in the offseason. I think in the last, I don’t know, three or four games, it’s paid off for us with some points and kind of kept people from putting all 11 people from tight end to tight end. That’s exactly what we wanted to do.”
With about a minute left in the first half, Panthers’ cornerback Dyllon Joiner made a huge stop on third and 15 for the Bulldogs, batting a deep pass out of the air that would have otherwise been a touchdown. However, Burnet’s backup quarterback Rowdy Holmes was able to find his receiver on fourth and 15 for a 34-yard first down completion that led to a 6-yard touchdown pass, keeping the Bulldogs in striking territory with a halftime score of 21-16 in favor of the Panthers.
Midway through the third quarter, the Panthers struck again, this time with an uncharacteristic 50-yard touchdown pass from Wright to Slade Cummins, Wright’s second touchdown pass of the game, which gave the Panthers a 29-16 lead after White’s two-point conversion.
Coach Vance explained after the game that the Panther offense has finally started to meet his expectations, though he would have liked to see these kinds of performances even earlier in the season.
“I’d like to have been there the first game,” Vance said, regarding the Panther offense’s performance, “but you know that just doesn’t happen. I thought our kids played well. I thought our coaches made some great adjustments and did a great job today.”
Liberty Hill started to run away with this one early in the fourth quarter, as Wright found Carter Ware, who plays both tight end and defensive end, for a 22-yard touchdown pass. A two-point conversion by Oncken gave the Panthers a 37-16 lead with 11:54 left in the game.
Ware’s impact for the Panthers was clear for what was essentially the entire game, even more so on the defensive end with his pass rushing ability, as he played just about every snap on both offense and defense.
“You have to be mentally tough,” Vance said of Ware playing both sides of the ball. “We can get you physically ready with the weights and the running and that kind of thing, but I think probably the one thing people overlook is how mentally challenging it is to play at that level consistently for that long period of time. I think that’s one of the great things that Carter has is he’s a mentally tough young man that has some goals and wants to do well at what he’s doing, and excel, and he’s done that so far.”
The Panthers’ final score came after an interception by senior defensive tackle Bailey Cloughly on an attempted screen pass by the Bulldogs. The interception led to a 22-yard touchdown run by Oncken and a 44-16 Liberty Hill lead after the extra point by kicker Michael Shipley.
The Bulldogs made the game seem closer than it was with a 50-yard touchdown pass in garbage time to close the gap to 44-23, which was the final score.
Three weeks ago, Coach Vance dubbed the games against Lampasas and Burnet as two of the most important of their season, both of which ended in Liberty Hill victories.
“I think it’s vital,” Vance said of getting a win against Burnet before facing top-ranked China Spring. “You’ve got China Spring, who’s number three, number two, number one in the state, depending on which poll you look at. They’re there because they play well and they’re big, they’re physical. You’ve got to have some momentum going into those games, or it’s going to be a long game next week.”
The Panthers will play the China Spring Cougars this Friday in China Spring at Cougar Stadium, located at 7301 N. River Crossing. The game will begin at 7:30 p.m.