Now it’s time – District play starts today

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Junior linebacker Chance Runnels (#21) and the Panther defense swarm the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage. (Kathy Canady File Photo)

Junior linebacker Chance Runnels (#21) and the Panther defense swarm the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage. (Kathy Canady File Photo)

By BOB VARMETTE

There really is a difference.

Non-district games count in the final season standings, but they have no bearing on whether a team makes the playoffs or not. For the Liberty Hill Panthers, these next five games – five district games – are the most important games they will ever play.

Now it’s time. Just ask Liberty Hill junior Chance Runnels.

“Now that these count, we need to win every one,” he said. “It’s time to step up. As a team, we need to step up and win games. We need to step up, play harder and come out faster.”

It all starts with a District 14-4A Division I game against the Canyon Lake Hawks (2-3) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Panther Stadium.

In August, the Panthers (3-2) were like every other football team in the state of Texas. Everyone was undefeated, and every team had at least a thought of earning a spot in the postseason, and maybe – just maybe – they even entertained thoughts of winning a state championship.

For the Panthers, the postseason is more than a fleeting thought. It’s an expectation.

This is what they worked for in two-a-days. This is why they played a brutal non-district schedule – the chance to win when it matters.

“Basically, it means it’s time to play,” Liberty Hill senior Christian Anderson said. “Usually when district comes around everyone’s pretty excited. It means it’s time to go, because once district comes around that’s how you make it to the playoffs. And we want to make a run this year so we’ve got to make sure that we come out and go hard during district.”

It’s the same deal in Fischer, the home of the Canyon Lake Hawks. They made the playoffs a year ago during Coach Charley Drum’s second year as head coach – after going winless in district.

Facing the team he calls the District 14-4A Division I favorite in their first district matchup is a big challenge for the Hawks.

They started with the same aspirations as the Panthers in early August. Now they get to see what all the work in practice and in playing their non-district schedule has wrought.

“I think it’s going to be exciting to see how we match up with them,” Drum said. “I want to see what we’ve learned this season. They’re kind of the program we want to measure ourselves against. Liberty Hill is where we want to be a few years down the road.”

What the Hawks will see – the Panthers, too – is something of a mirror image offensively.

It really isn’t known exactly how many teams run the Slot-T offense. But two of them – the Panthers and the Hawks – will play each other Friday night.

Canyon Lake switched to the offense last season. Despite a winless non-district schedule, Drum stuck with his new offense, and he said it started to pay dividends late in the year.

“It took us a while,” he said. “But it was good for us toward the end of last season. We just don’t have a plethora of skill kids, so it makes sense for us. And it fits the mentality of our kids – a blue-collar mentality.”

Defensive preparation may be simplified for the teams, although Drum noted there’s really no way in practice to simulate the speed and the execution of the Panthers’ version of the Slot-T, which is averaging more than 400 yards per game, including 372.8 yards rushing.

The Hawks are not without threats either, Liberty Hill Coach Jerry Vance said, noting particularly the size of their offensive line. But getting ready to play another Slot-T offense doesn’t result in a big change in routine.

“We’ve done this before when we played Navarro. Llano used to run the Slot-T,” Vance said. “I don’t think it makes our preparation any different, other than we probably know the offense a little bit better than we do the spread.”

Added Anderson: “We’re kind of used to pass and run, so really it’s not much of a difference. We’re a hitting team. We like it when they keep it on the ground – we can go in and make a play. It’s going to be a good time.”

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