Liberty Hill dominates Hawks to lock up postseason berth
By Scott Akanewich
Panthers head coach Jeff Walker sat on a Gatorade jug in the hallway in the visitors’ locker room at Canyon Lake on Friday a very relieved man.
After all, his squad had just defeated the host Hawks by a 31-7 score and in doing so, clinched a return to the Class 4A playoffs.
With everything he and his team had been through during the most difficult of seasons, excuse Walker if he wanted to take a load off.
One by one his players filed by and received congratulations on a job well done and indeed that’s what it was in the Panthers’ most complete game of the season, dominating on both sides of the ball.
“We had no other choice,” said Walker, of his club’s nearly flawless performance. “We challenged our players to step up and they did.”
Liberty Hill established a tone from the outset, taking the opening kickoff and methodically marching down the field on the Canyon Lake defense, culminating with an eight-yard rumble into the end zone by Blake Simpson to put the cherry on top of a 14-play, 87-yard drive which took up seven minutes off the clock and gave the Purple-and-Gold a 7-0 lead.
“What that drive did was give us some confidence,” said Walker. “But, that’s what we do offensively.”
When the home side finally got the ball, it was the Panthers’ defense’s turn to send a message.
Senior Jacob Cearley, who continued to pull double-duty on both sides of the line of scrimmage, marauded into the Hawks’ backfield from his safety position to throw a Canyon Lake ballcarrier for a six-yard loss, then followed that up with a big hit on quarterback counterpart Peyton McMullen on a failed 3rd-and-21 keeper which forced a quick three-and-out.
On only the third play after the Panthers’ offense got the ball back at midfield, Cearley took the snap and handed the ball to junior Trey Seward, who cut back up the middle for a 50-yard scoring sprint and a 14-0 advantage.
Seniors Walker Baty and Drake Oberpriller lowered the boom on the Hawks’ offense with a pair of thunderous hits on the next series, forcing another Canyon Lake punt and the opening quarter ended with a two-touchdown Liberty Hill lead.
Canyon Lake’s only points of the night came on its next possession when the Hawks’ Jeremy Greene got the ball on a reverse and found a wide-open Kyle Yuill in the back corner of the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown pass, but that was all for the Hawks’ offense.
After three bruising runs by Simpson on the Panthers’ next possession, Seward ripped off a 30-yard touchdown run and it was 21-7.
Once again the defense came up big on the ensuing series as linebacker Bryce Rampy broke into the Hawks’ backfield so quickly the junior was able to hit McMullen as he was attempting to hand the ball off, creating a fumble in the process and recovering the ball.
With the Panthers’ offense back in business on the Canyon Lake 27-yard line with only 1:45 left in the second quarter, it took only four plays for Simpson to score from seven yards out, providing the Panthers with a commanding 28-7 halftime lead.
Walker said Rampy’s play gave his team even more momentum going into the break.
“Absolutely, that was a big play,” he said. “Our defense played lights out.”
The only scoring by either side the entire second half was a 24-yard field goal from senior Mason Shipley, which provided the final margin of victory, as the Panthers’ offense continued to churn out yards and eat up the clock, while the defense was dominant throughout the contest.
Perhaps the most notable occurrence of the second half was a a sequence which saw the Liberty Hill defense hit with three personal-foul penalties on the same play, resulting in a net gain of 45 yards for the Hawks’ offense – its biggest gain of the night – something which didn’t please Walker.
“The officials tried to take it away from us again this week, but we didn’t let them,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything more which needs to be said about that.”
Finally, after the defense had made one last stand, the Panthers’ offense only needed to line up in the victory formation and after Cearley took a knee on consecutive plays, it was all over but the shouting for the senior signal-caller and his teammates.
“I’m proud of all my guys,” said Cearley. “We’re just happy to get a win and make the playoffs. Hopefully, we can make it as far as last year.”
As for the complete performance put on by him and his teammates, Cearley was rather matter-of-fact.
“Everyone was just doing their jobs,” he said. “Which is what made us successful.”
Seward finished with 172 yards on 16 carries and a pair of touchdowns, while Simpson rushed a workmanlike 20 times for 92 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Nash Robinson added 50 yards on 11 carries in the absence of the injured Eric De La Cruz, to complete a well-rounded offensive effort.
Walker lauded the efforts of Cearley on both sides of the ball.
“Jacob’s a very competitive young man,” he said. “He didn’t want the season to end, so he went out there and performed.”
For Walker, perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the victory was the fact his veterans now have the chance at a postseason rebirth, he said.
“I’m really happy for our seniors,” said Walker. “They’re a group who went out and battled – it says a lot about Liberty Hill and what we’re all about.”
Liberty Hill (4-5, 2-3) will next face West Columbia in the opening round of the playoffs with the date and location yet to be determined.
However, in the aftermath of victory in a must-win game on a cold night in Texas Hill Country, none of that mattered to Walker.
“We’ve had a rough season,” he said. “But, now we get to start a new one.”