LHHS eyes best football title opportunity since mid-2000s

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By Keith Sparks

Every year, teams that are supposed to go deep in the playoffs make surprising exits much earlier than expected, and every year, there are teams that surprise people on the other end of the spectrum, creating Cinderella stories by beating teams nobody thought they could beat.

What’s the difference between those teams?

“Kids that aren’t tired of playing,” Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker said. “That’s number one. Sometimes, this time of year, like today wasn’t much fun outside. It was something like 30 degrees and the wind is blowing 100 miles an hour. It’s real easy to be satisfied. ‘We made it to the playoffs. If we go out, at least we made the playoffs. We got our playoff shirt.’ Some want to go play basketball. They’d rather be in the gym, especially when the weather’s like it is right now. You have some kids whose first sport is basketball and they’re out there not having fun, because it’s cold and nasty. Then you have some where it’s just been a long season. It’s been since Aug. 6 and they’re just ready to go do something else, so they don’t bring the energy or the effort to the game, and if you do that with people like Bay City, you turn your stuff in. You’ll regret it down the road, but at the time, it’s the easiest way.”

As the community has witnessed firsthand, however, that’s not the Panther way. Starting senior running back Kyle Harrison has been a leader on and off the field for the Panthers this season, and he said not a single person on the team has that mindset. In fact, he gets the sense they’d all like to play 20 more games.

“I haven’t heard any talk about wanting the season to end or going to play basketball or anything,” Harrison said. “A lot of us are seniors, and we want it. We know this is our last ride and we don’t want it to end. We don’t want just six more games, we want 20 more games. It’s too short for us right now, so we want to make it last.”

For some teams, simply getting a playoff berth would be considered a success, but Walker knows that’s not how Liberty Hill operates. On the other hand, that isn’t how Bay City would like to go out, either.

“Luckily at Liberty Hill, just going 8-2 and making the playoffs is not a good season,” Walker said. “That’s a bad season, so we’ve got that going in our favor, but we are facing a team that doesn’t want to end their season knowing that they’re a really good football team that finished 4-7.”

Defensive Coordinator Kent Walker isn’t concerned at all about his defense’s motivation at this point. In fact, he thinks they’re more energized now than they have been all season, considering what’s at stake.

“That’s the beauty about Liberty Hill,” Kent said. “This is when the real season begins. The kids are more excited now than they were 10 weeks ago. That’s the wonderful thing about coaching in Liberty Hill is the kids of Liberty Hill. They have a goal, and the goal is to win the next game. I’m excited about it, and I’m excited for our kids.”

Like his running back and defensive coordinator, Head Coach Jeff Walker doesn’t think his team is ready to hang the cleats up, either, but knows the comfortability factor is something he’ll have to fight. Last week, video of his pre-game speech showed Walker using a loss to Canyon Lake in junior high as motivation for his team headed into last Friday’s game. As a head coach, motivating athletes and keeping them focused is a huge part of the job, and Walker seems to be a cut above the rest at it.

“As a coach, you’ve done it long enough that you do read how your kids are feeling,” Jeff said. “If they seem tired, I think smart coaches can lighten up a little bit and still get some work out of them.”

At this point in the season, Jeff Walker believes rest is a huge part of staying in the hunt for a State Championship. With that in mind, the coaching staff has shortened practices pretty significantly, confident that his team knows what they need to do.

“We’ve lightened up about the last four weeks,” Jeff Walker said. “I was already coming off the field at 6:20, and at the beginning of the year, we were going until about 7:30 Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. We lighten it a little bit, which sounds crazy. Come playoff time, you think, ‘Boy, now there’s no tomorrow. You need to get every rep you can,’ but you want the kids to be fresh. We’ve been doing it long enough, so we feel pretty comfortable with what we’ve got.”

The importance of rest should really come into play the deeper the Panthers go into the playoffs, which Harrison thinks they have their best shot at doing since he arrived on campus nearly four years ago. With the removal of Waco La Vega and China Spring from their region, the Panthers could face some favorable matchups after a tough first round.

“Not only just facing our opponents, because we don’t really look at that; we look at our team,” Harrison said. “With what we’ve got, we can have a long run if we play how we have been. The teams we’re facing are not La Vegas and China Springs, but it’s mostly our team that’s going to get us the wins.”

Considering the performances the Panthers have had as of late, Harrison’s mindset seems appropriate. On the defensive end, that confidence in themselves should only continue to increase coming off of their first shutout of the season against Canyon Lake. Defensive Coordinator Kent Walker said it’s something they’ve been aiming for all season, so to accomplish it during the last regular season game should give them a boost moving forward.

“It’s good to get a shutout at any time,” Kent Walker said. “The kids have been striving to get a shutout the entire season, so that’s the goal week-in and week-out is to not let the other team on the board. Moving into the playoffs, it’s good, and we hope to carry that momentum into the playoffs with us.”

Although the stakes have increased, Head Coach Jeff Walker said their routine won’t. Since his arrival close to two years ago, he’s preached on the importance of keeping a routine, and that hasn’t changed.
Harrison said his team’s approach won’t change, either, aside from knowing what’s now at stake.

“The only thing that changes for us is knowing that if we lose, we go home,” Harrison said. “It’s a little different going in. We’ve got to be more focused and play how we can. Don’t ease up on anybody now. We’ve got six more games, only one more for sure, so that’s how we’re going to play it.”

If the Panthers are able to get out of the first round, 2018 could be their best shot at a State Championship since the mid-2000s. After playing Bay City, the Panthers will likely matchup with Gonzales, then Sealy, and one of either La Vernia, Grulla, Lampasas, Brazosport, La Feria, Beeville Jones, Needville, or Canyon Lake in the Regional Championship, all of which the Panthers would likely be favored over.

For now, however, the Panthers are taking it one week at a time with Bay City currently in their sights.

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