Panther defense posts third straight shutout

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By Scott Akanewich
Sports Editor
Heading into Liberty Hill’s district game against McCallum this week, Panthers head coach Jeff Walker claimed the Knights would be the best team his side has faced so far this season and he was right.
After the Purple-and-Gold hammered Crockett (76-0) and Travis (86-0) by a combined 162-0 in the first two district contests of the season, Walker had to settle for a relatively pedestrian 42-0 home victory over McCallum on Friday night.
Senior Trey Seward ran 15 times for 150 yards and three touchdowns on a cold, windy late autumn evening – conditions which certainly didn’t match Walker’s mood after the game.
“Our offensive line didn’t play very well tonight,” said Walker. “McCallum’s defense was much more physical than our offense.”
Sounds a bit absurd to hear a coach complain about an offensive unit which has just scored 42 points and rolled up 367 yards of offense, but Walker was referring more to how his offense operated as opposed to the numbers on the stat sheet or scoreboard.
A primary point of contention is the territorial battle being waged – and lost – at the point of attack, said Walker.
“We need to establish ourselves on their side of the line, which we’re not doing,” he said. “We knew exactly what McCallum was going to do and they were a little bigger than us, but it was just a matter of them being more physical than we were.”
Walker had no such qualms with his defense, as they posted a shutout for the third consecutive week.
“They did a great job of getting us good field position the entire game,” he said. “The defense scored as many points in the second half as our offense did.”
Walker was referring to Andon Thomas’ 86-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter – an occasion which marked the third consecutive game in which the junior linebacker has returned a turnover for a score – and is certainly one player Walker need not worry about not showing up for work, he said.
“Andon’s the real deal – he could easily play all 22 positions on our team,” said Walker. “I can see him playing at a Division I school.”
Liberty Hill’s defense established itself on the opening possession of the evening, forcing a three-and-out which netted the Knights -5 yards, including tackles for losses of -4 and -5 fives yards, respectively, by a tag-team of Aaron Brewer and Lloyd Johnson on the first play from scrimmage and a solo effort by Canyon Schirpik on a 3rd-and-10.
After McCallum’s punt netted only five yards, the Panthers’ offense took over on the Knights’ 20 and it only took three plays for Blake Simpson to score from 12 yards out and a 7-0 lead.
Another three-and-out on the next McCallum possession gained only three yards before the Panthers set off on perhaps their most impressive offensive drive of the season.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the home side on the return set the offense up at its own 10-yard line after another McCallum punt.
Following eight straight runs by either Seward or Simpson, senior quarterback Charlie Calabretta dropped back and found Nate Hilbrich for a 24-yard gain through the air down the right sideline on 2nd-and-8 at the Knights’ 36 before Seward ran in from seven yards out on a 4th-and-5 from the seven four plays later and it was 14-0 with 3:31 left in the first quarter after a 13-play, 90-yard drive.
Perhaps the defense’s value was best illustrated when midway through the second quarter, the Panthers forced the Knights to attempt a 24-yard field goal after they had driven 69 yards on 17 plays and had a 1st-and-goal on the Liberty Hill 8-yard line.
McCallum missed the attempt and on the ensuing play after the Panthers had taken over on downs at their own 20-yard-line, Calabretta rolled out to his left and saw nothing but open field in front of him, as he galloped off on an 80-yard touchdown run down the sideline.
According to Calabretta, he was only concerned with one thing on his way to the end zone.
“I just ran as fast as I could and kept looking behind me to see if they were gaining on me,” said Calabretta. “All I wanted to do was get to the purple.”
Once the signal-caller finally did reach the violet target beyond the goal line, it was 21-0 in favor of the home team with 6:56 left in the half.
Yet another three-and-out forced by the Panthers’ defense on the next McCallum possession resulted in the Knights’ punt being returned by Carter Hudson for 29 yards all the way down to the visitors’ 31-yard-line.
Four plays later, Seward took advantage of the short field with an 18-yard scoring run and it was 28-0.
Freshman Noah Long recovered a McCallum fumble on the ensuing kickoff, but the Panthers handed the ball back with a fumble of their own moments later and the score remained 28-0 at halftime.
The only other points of the second half in addition to Thomas’ interception return were supplied by Seward’s 65-yard, breakaway run with 2:50 left in the third quarter, after which the contest was done and dusted.
However, even in yet another one-sided victory, Calabretta knows he and his offensive teammates must be better if they expect to have any kind of success against playoff-caliber competition.
“If we keep playing like this, we won’t get past the second round,” he said. “We’re not being physical enough, which is something I’ll have to remind them about in practice.”
Walker wasn’t quite as diplomatic in his assessment.
“I didn’t see a lot of scratching, clawing and knocking heads by our guys out there tonight,” he said. “Maybe we need to revamp our practices because we don’t do a lot of live blocking in practice.”
In addition, Walker rued the fact they just don’t make them like they used to anymore.
“These days you have to teach kids to be physical and tough,” he said. “They don’t come to you that way anymore like back when guys would fight each other in a minute – you need to show them.”
As usual, Walker held himself accountable for his squad’s shortcomings.
“I take the blame for it,” he said. “All I know is we better do something to get better in a hurry.”
Walker then doubled down on Calabretta’s assessment of the Panthers’ playoff chances.
“Even the first round is going to be tough this year,” he said.
The veteran coach also added he’s not concerned with his players tiring of hearing the same halftime and postgame speeches.
“I’m not worried about that at all,” said Walker. “I’m very demanding of them, but I’m also honest and upfront. If I didn’t spend 365 days of the year with them, it would be different, so I have a good enough relationship – they need to know. This program’s not about Coach Walker and we need to do what we have to for it to be successful.”
Simpson rushed 16 times for 67 yards and a touchdown, while Eric De La Cruz added nine attempts for 39 yards and Calabretta was 1-of-3 for 24 yards.
Liberty Hill (5-0, 3-0) will travel to Marble Falls on Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m.

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