By KEITH SPARKS
A replay of one of the most high-octane matchups of the regular season took place in the third round of the playoffs on Friday, as Liberty Hill and China Spring matched up once again following the Panthers’ 59-58 victory over the Cougars earlier this season. The two district rivals met at Killeen’s Leo Buckley Stadium for the Regional Semifinal, and the Panthers came away with a 33-28 victory.
China Spring was the first team to take possession on the opening kickoff, but a fumble by the Cougars’ Tyrick James early on gave Liberty Hill the ball at the opposing 40-yard line, allowing the Panthers to start their first drive with solid field position.
Running back Kyle Harrison was given an opportunity to show his stuff early. A couple solid carries by Harrison and a quarterback keeper by Brenden Ketchem for a first down preceded a 4-yard touchdown run by Harrison for the first score of the game. With 8:06 left in the first quarter, Liberty Hill held a 7-0 lead.
The Cougars answered quickly, starting with a big kickoff return to give them possession at their own 45-yard line. China Spring quarterback Cayden Johnson found Steven Russo for a 53-yard gain before he was dropped at the 2-yard line. James capitalized on the next play, rushing for a 2-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7 with 6:41 left in the first quarter.
Liberty Hill responded with a big kickoff return of their own, giving them possession at their own 43-yard line. On the very first play from scrimmage, Harrison took off for a 57-yard touchdown run to give the Panthers a 14-7 lead with 5:53 left in the first quarter.
On the Cougars’ next possession, Liberty Hill’s Wyatt Cheney was able to come up with a stop on third down, forcing China Spring into a fourth and 2 scenario. They were able to convert, but the Panthers’ Deaun Gidrey sacked Johnson to force a third and 10, and solid coverage in the secondary on third down forced Johnson to keep it for only 2 yards. On fourth down and 8, China Spring opted to punt.
The Panthers were forced into their own fourth down situation on their next possession and decided to go for it with 1 yard to go. Ketchem kept it for a quarterback keeper up the middle, but fell inches short, and the Cougars gained possession.
China Spring was rewarded for the stop with great field position, starting their next drive from the opposing 36-yard line. A few plays and a first down later, Johnson kept it on a designed quarterback run and took it to the house from 24 yards out. With 26 seconds left in the first quarter, the game was tied at 14-14.
Liberty Hill fullback Hunter Oncken got involved early in the second quarter, converting two straight first downs for the Panthers from the backfield. Harrison got in on the action, as well, but was stopped for a loss on third and 4 to force the Panthers to kick a field foal on fourth down. From 40 yards out, Michael Shipley knocked it through the uprights easily to take a 17-14 lead with 8:59 left in the second quarter.
On their next possession, the Cougars benefitted from a facemask penalty called on the Panthers during what was already a big run play, giving them the ball at the opposing 15-yard line. After a couple short running plays put them near the goal line, James punched it in from 1 yard out to give China Spring a 21-17 lead with 6:15 left in the second quarter.
Ketchem came up big for the Panthers with a 17-yard pass to running back Elijah Davis on second and 18, giving the Panthers an opportunity to continue their drive on third and 1, which Ketchem was able to convert. Shortly thereafter, Harrison took off for his third touchdown of the first half from 28 yards out to give the Panthers a 24-21 lead with 4:16 left in the second quarter.
The Cougars showed off their passing game on their ensuing possession, as Johnson carved up the Panther defense, ultimately resulting in a 13-yard touchdown pass to James with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter. At halftime, China Spring led 28-24.
Liberty Hill kick returner and defensive back Brady Brewer electrified the crowd with a kickoff return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff of the second half, but the return was called back due to a hold, and the Panthers would eventually be forced to punt on their first possession of the third quarter.
The Panther defense played a huge role on the Cougars’ next possession, as Grant Supak and Ethan Thom stopped running back Erik Hart on third and 3, forcing the Cougars into a fourth and 5. China Spring opted to go for it on fourth down, but Riley LaDuque sacked Johnson for a huge loss on the play, giving the Panthers the ball on their own 38-yard line.
China Spring’s defense answered on the Panthers’ next possession with similar results, sacking Ketchem for a big loss and forcing Liberty Hill to pass on third and 23. The pass fell incomplete, and the Liberty Hill coaching staff put the ball at the foot of Shipley once again. From 48 yards out, Shipley made his second field goal of the game with ease to make it 28-27 in favor of China Spring with 1:17 left in the third quarter.
A punt from the Cougars followed, and the Panthers looked to take a late lead and important momentum. Harrison took off for a 46-yard run to the opposing 21. Oncken followed with a first down of his own, and Harrison followed his first with a run to the 1-yard line. The Panthers had two opportunities to score from the 1-yard line, as the first was stopped short, but an offsides penalty allowed them to try once more. For a second time, they were stopped at the goal line and the Cougars were given possession from their own 1-inch line.
All China Spring could do on their next possession was avoid a safety, playing it relatively safe simply to stay out of their own end zone. They were forced to punt from their own 4-yard line, but Liberty Hill was unable to capitalize and were forced to punt, as well.
China Spring had a lead and the ball with just over two minutes to play from their own 13-yard line. The Panthers were hit with a devastating pass interference penalty on third and long, giving the Cougars an automatic first down. On their first play following the penalty, however, James fumbled in the backfield and the Panthers recovered, giving them the ball in enemy territory with under two minutes to go.
On fourth and 1 with 1:13 to play, down by one point, the Panther coaching staff chose to go for it, and Ketchem made the decision look to be a smart one with a first down on a quarterback keeper up the middle.
The Liberty Hill offense ran the ball and the clock for a minute and 10 seconds, giving themselves an opportunity to score at the goal line with 3 seconds left. Ketchem was the man that made it happen, scoring on another quarterback keeper with 3 seconds left to give the Panthers a 33-28 lead. The two-point conversion was no good, so the Panthers would kickoff with 3 seconds left and a 5-point lead.
The Cougars made things interesting, to say the least, on the resulting kickoff, lateralling more than a dozen times from one player to the next, at times looking as if they had an opportunity to break free. Finally, after a nerve racking minute or so, the Panther kickoff team was able to subdue the returner, and Liberty Hill walked away with a 33-28 victory.