PANTHER OF THE WEEK: Ketchem leads defense to second-half shutout

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By Lance Catchings

Senior linebacker Brenden Ketchem knew heading into the regional playoff game against Sealy that his team would need his best effort.

He delivered in a big way by registering a team-high 14 tackles and one sack in one of Liberty Hill’s top defensive efforts of the season.

“Going through my head before the game, especially against teams like Sealy, you know it’s going to be a battle,” Ketchem said. “We knew we had to play tough all game and that every down was going to need our best effort. You must stay energized the entire game, and you must stay positive until the last whistle blows. We knew headed in that Sealy team had not faced a fast, physical defense like we have. We wanted to get in their backfield and get in their face right away. We wanted to put pressure on their quarterback and make decisions that he never had to make before. We really put them in uncomfortable situations by pressuring them.”

After stuffing the run much of the first quarter, Sealy used the pass to open the defense. As a middle linebacker, Ketchem had a lot of ground to cover, watching crossing routes and filling running lanes. The tactic was somewhat effective for the Tigers, but was nothing Liberty Hill had not already prepared for.

“It is a little more difficult to maintain an offense when they spread you out,” he said. “With our defense, we know that as long as we do what we’ve been coached, the receivers shouldn’t have too much impact. If we stay in our gaps, they shouldn’t have too many running lanes. Their running back broke a couple on us, but if we continue to do our job, then there should be nowhere for him to run, and that’s the mentality we kept throughout the game.”

Being down 21-14 at halftime was unfamiliar territory for the Panthers. Liberty Hill had not faced a halftime deficit since week two of the regular season against Hutto. Ketchem and the defense knew the game was resting on their shoulders.

“At halftime, we knew coming back out that we had to shut Sealy out,” he said. “Our mentality was If they don’t score another touchdown and we give our offense the opportunity to score, we knew we could win the game. We told ourselves as a defense, ‘We’re going to win this game.’ We wanted to shut them out and stop a really good offense by showing them we’re not done yet. We may have been down by seven, but we don’t quit, so that was our halftime mentality.”

Sealy quarterback Garret Zaskoda was under duress from the Panther defense the entire second half. The Panther secondary and front seven worked effectively to keep him out of rhythm the remainder of the game.

“Pressuring the quarterback helps our secondary tremendously,” he said. “When he is looking for an open receiver and our secondary has him covered, it gives us much more time to get back there and get a sack or have a pressured throw. We pride ourselves on our physicality, and that is a big part of our defense. It seems like not many teams like to hit hard these days. We pride ourselves on bottling up our opponent and knocking them around. We want to make them uncomfortable, and physicality is a key factor for us this year.”

Leading 28-21 in the fourth quarter with just over six minutes remaining, the Liberty Hill defense took the field for a season-defining drive. The explosive Sealy offense drove the length of the field converting on fourth down along the way. Ketchem and his teammates never lost faith in themselves.

“We knew if we wanted to win the game and move on to round four, it was right there in front of us,” he said. “Everything we have played for all season came down to that drive and that moment. We bowed our necks and played more physical than we ever had. We were not backing down and were focused on winning the game, whatever it took.”

On a fourth and goal, the defense came up huge again when they sacked the Sealy quarterback for what ended up being the Tigers last threat.

“I am extremely proud of our team and how we handled that adversity, because Sealy put us in an uncomfortable situation,” Ketchem said. “We have been known to blow out teams this season, and Sealy was a really explosive team. None of us gave up or backed down. We stepped up to the challenge and showed we are a team that will play for four quarters until the clock hits zero. I am proud of how we continued to fight and get the win. This was a key, defining moment for our defense, especially in the second half. We showed that we could keep up with offenses with explosive skill players and quarterbacks. It really defined our defense. This defense is a family. We have complete, full trust in one another, and we have all bought in to one another. We know that as long as we each do our job, everything will be alright.”

As the defense left the field to the roar of the hundreds of Liberty Hill fans, Ketchem said it was a moment he will not forget. It was a great moment, but he and his teammates are back to work focused on their next opponent.

“It is an indescribable feeling when you look into the stands after a moment like that,” he said. “Our fans fill visitors stands all the time, whether we are home or away. To look up and see that fanbase cheering us on and the loyalty they have for us is just an amazing feeling. This win gives us a lot of momentum, but we must take on every team the same way. The stakes get even higher the further you get into the playoffs, and we have to get better every game. We have to build on our success as we continue throughout the playoffs.”

Ketchem and his teammates will face La Vernia Saturday in San Marcos in the State Quarterfinals. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.

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