By KEITH SPARKS
The Panthers’ playoff run finally came to an end on Friday in Killeen, as the number two state-ranked Waco La Vega Pirates showed why they’re undefeated this season. Liberty Hill was unable to get much going offensively throughout the entire 48 minutes, and the Pirates ultimately won by a final score of 28-18.
The first quarter was a tight defensive battle, as each team forced the other to punt on its first possession of the game. Liberty Hill’s Ethan Thom played a big part in stopping La Vega’s first drive with a sack of quarterback Jamal Williams for a 6-yard loss on third down to force a punt.
On La Vega’s second possession, however, the offense started clicking. Running backs Kemoche’ Hobbs, Cameron Henry, and John Richards helped established the run game, converting on a fourth down which eventually led to a 2-yard touchdown run by Hobbs. The Pirates held a 7-0 lead with 46 seconds left in the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter, the Panthers continued to struggle offensively. After a solid kickoff return by Kyle Harrison, they were unable to take advantage of good field position and instead were forced to punt again.
Williams looked solid in the passing game in the second quarter, converting on a number of third and long situations by finding receivers right at the first down marker. Deep in Panther territory, thanks in large part to the passing game, Hobbs found room to run once again, this time breaking tackles while taking off for a 21-yard touchdown run to take a 14-0 lead with 6:44 left in the second quarter.
Harrison was finally able to get something going late in the second quarter, as a big run was made even bigger with a facemask penalty on the Pirates, giving the Panthers a first down at the opposing 20. The Pirate defense held strong once again, though, and the Panthers were forced to kick a field goal, which Shipley hit from 35 yards out. With 4:14 left in the second, the Panthers were down 14-3.
The Panther defense held strong and kept Liberty Hill within striking distance before halftime, as Daylan Cunningham batted down a pass to force the Pirates into a punt on fourth down.
The Panthers were given the ball with an opportunity to score once more before the half, but the Pirate defense remained impenetrable, sacking quarterback Brenden Ketchem for a big loss. On fourth and 11 with 50 seconds left in the first half, the Panthers punted, and La Vega was unable to go the length of the field before halftime, so the score remained at 14-3.
La Vega tried to pull a fast one immediately out of halftime, attempting an onside kick straight out of the gate. Liberty Hill recovered, however, and had great field position at their own 46. Harrison found some success on the ground, but the Panthers were still forced into fourth and 2 from the opposing 31-yard line. Instead of trying the long field goal, they opted to go for it and were stopped short, turning the ball over on downs.
Things were beginning to look grim for Liberty Hill after the unsuccessful fourth-down conversion in enemy territory, but the Panther defense came through by forcing a fumble on the Pirates’ next possession. On Liberty Hill’s very first play following the fumble, Harrison took off for a 38-yard touchdown run. Elijah Davis found the end zone on a two-point conversion, and the Panthers found themselves within a field goal at 14-11 with 7:52 left in the third.
La Vega’s resulting drive was successful in every sense of the word, as nearly the entire Pirate offense got involved, getting first down after first down on the ground and through the air, converting on a fourth down and 3 that allowed them to continue their drive deep in Panther territory. Richards would score on a 16-yard touchdown run, making it 21-11 with 1:32 left in the third quarter.
Liberty Hill’s Brady Brewer took off for a huge kickoff return after the Pirate touchdown, but a holding penalty brought him back to the Panthers’ own 43-yard line. On fourth and 6 early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers attempted a bootleg pass, but the play went nowhere. With 9:59 left in the game, Liberty Hill turned it over on downs again.
The Panthers weren’t finished, though, as safety Wyatt Cheney stuffed Williams short on fourth and 1 on the next possession, giving Liberty Hill the ball back with enough time to make it interesting.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, however, the Pirate defense continued to do what they’d done for the majority of the night, stopping Harrison short on fourth and 2 to get the ball back once again.
On La Vega’s very first play following the Panther turnover, Richard took off for a 59-yard touchdown run with 5:58 left in the game, essentially ending it then and there.
The Panthers would score once more by way of a 1-yard touchdown run by Harrison, making it 28-18 with just over a minute left, after which the Pirates would simply run the clock out, ending Liberty Hill’s football season and stamping their own ticket to the State Semifinal.
Following the loss, the Panthers’ overall record stood at 10-3 in Jeff Walker’s first season as Head Coach and Athletic Director, surpassing just about everybody’s expectations for the season.