Liberty Hill sets sights on La Feria
By Scott Akanewich
Liberty Hill head coach Jeff Walker stood outside the visitors’ locker room on a chilly night in Waller last week after his team had manhandled previous one-loss West Columbia in a 44-8 opening-round playoff contest when he offered an assessment of the Panthers’ performance.
“I think everybody in there thinks we can still be a better team,” he said.
Certainly a scary prospect for potential postseason opponents.
However, despite the Purple-and-Gold’s utter and complete domination of the 9-1 Roughnecks, the degree of difficulty goes up even more this week, as next up for Walker’s club are the La Feria Lions, who happen to own a perfect 11-0 record on the current campaign and a propensity for lighting up scoreboards, something Walker is wary of, he said.
“They throw the ball all over the field,” said Walker. “Also, they run really well with their two main running backs. When you’re 11-0, it means you do everything well.”
According to Walker, experience plays a critical role for the Lions.
“They have 10 seniors on defense and quite a few three-year starters,” said Walker. “A really good senior class, like we had last year.”
La Feria boast of a well-balanced offensive attack which is averaging 269.6 yards rushing along with 201.7 passing yards per game and at the heart of it all is senior quarterback Dorian Hernandez, who is as potent on the ground as he is through the air.
Hernandez has completed 116 of 162 passes for 1,973 yards and 25 touchdowns against only six interceptions and has run for 803 yards and 16 scores.
In fact, Hernandez has accounted for 41 of La Feria’s 70 touchdowns on the season, with 2,776 total yards.
Leading the Lions’ rushing attack is junior Angel Garcia, who has run for 884 yards and five touchdowns on the season, while senior Caleb Flores is La Feria’s leading receiver with 50 catches for 869 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Attempting to shut down the Lions’ high-powered attack will be a rejuvenated Panthers defense, which has allowed a combined 15 points over the past three games.
But, despite the numbers, Walker cautioned his squad hasn’t been challenged by as powerful of an opponent in recent weeks.
“We’ve been good against the run all season,” he said. “The past three teams we’ve played have all been primarily running teams, but we’ve struggled a bit with the pass.”
At the center of both the offense and defense for the Panthers is senior Jacob Cearley, who has helped the resurgent defense from his free safety spot in addition to his signal-calling duties on the other side of the ball and said the performance he and defensive mates put on against West Columbia has provided a renewed bravado within its ranks.
“I felt like we were a lot more confident against West Columbia,” said Cearley. “We just went out there and made it happen.”
Cearley singled out a pair of Panthers who have been at the center of the defensive renaissance in recent weeks.
“We have more experience now at the right times,” he said. “Guys like Preston Shephard and Kaden McMahan have really stepped it up.”
Ironically, the Panthers failed to have at least one running back hit the century mark in a game for only the second time all season in the win over West Columbia, but the offense still managed to put 44 points on the board, mainly due to short fields as the result of forcing five Roughnecks turnovers, which pleased Walker, he said.
“I always tell our players whoever wins the turnover battle usually wins the game,” he said.
Senior Nate Robinson led the Liberty Hill offense with 94 yards on 10 carries to go with a pair of touchdowns, while Blake Simpson ran 15 times for 86 yards and two touchdowns and Trey Seward had 79 yards on 17 carries and a score.
In all, the Panthers rushed for 263 yards on the game, well below their season average of 316.8.
Seward continues to lead Liberty Hill with 1,438 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns, while Simpson has 1,248 yards and 15 scores with Robinson contributing 408 yards and six touchdowns.
Defensively, senior Walker Baty was a one-man, Purple-and-Gold wrecking crew against West Columbia, recording four sacks, eight tackles, two passes defended and a fumble return for a touchdown.
But, Baty wasn’t the only Panthers defender laying down the law.
Sophomore Andon Thomas led Liberty Hill with 13 tackles, including a pair for losses, while senior Drake Oberpriller added 10 on the evening.
Walker said the high-scoring nature of the game caught him by surprise.
“Going in, my expectations were it was going to be a low-scoring game,” he said. “Offensively, we did just enough.”
Walker added he doesn’t necessarily believe there is any pressure lifted from his players despite the dominant win.
“Our players do a pretty good job of staying focused – they’re pretty steady,” he said. “But, I think every time you step on the field during the playoffs, there’s pressure.”