PANTHER PROFILE: Sophomore Sanders ‘plays beyond his age’

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2016-09-23-lhhs-football-vs-austin-anderson-129-webBy Mike Schoeffel

Sophomore Reid Sanders may be in his first season as a running back for the Liberty Hill varsity team, but he’s been preparing to enter into the Panthers’ unique Slot-T system for quite some time.

Five years, to be exact.

“There was a group of dads that started implementing that system during my fifth grade year,” he said. “I’ve known the fullback, halfback, and tailback positions since I started back then. So I came into high school with a pretty solid knowledge base.”

That “solid knowledge base” has paid off well for Sanders. Through six games he’s the Panthers’ second leading rusher, behind only junior Hunter Oncken, running for 340 yards and four touchdowns on 62 carries. He’s also the leading receiver (for what it’s worth on a team that’s only thrown the ball 30 times all season) hauling in two passes for 62 yards and a touchdown.

Don’t think for a second that success has gone to Sanders’ head, though.

“I’m just there like everybody else in the backfield,” he said. “When I can make a big play I try to do my part. Even if it’s just carrying out a fake, I try to do everything to the best of my ability.”

Sanders’ role became more pronounced several weeks ago when leading rusher and senior leader Justin Burkett left the team. At first, Sanders and his teammates were “shocked,” as he put it. But the 10th grader has stepped up to fill the statistical gap left by Burkett’s departure. Sanders had one of his best games to date last week, rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown against Lampasas. The Panthers won, 27-16.

“After Justin left it was like ‘whoa,’” he said. “It made me want to try a little bit harder. Justin was a hammer, he’d go around and pound people. He came through the hole like a bowling ball and I try to do that a lot. After he left I felt like I needed to start playing with reckless abandon.”

Burkett’s exit didn’t leave a complete leadership vacuum in the backfield. Quarterback Garrett Wright is a senior with ample varsity experience. Sanders said Wright is “full of tips and good advice” and that he “knows exactly what everybody should be doing.”

Wright has watched Sanders develop from a wide-eyed freshman to a legitimate contributor at the varsity level, saying “he knows when to step up and be a leader and encourage others to push their limits to be the best they can be.”

“He (Sanders) plays beyond his age,” said Wright. “He plays like a senior. He depicts how a young man should approach the game and is a very mature player.”

Sanders recent success hasn’t been lost on head coach Jerry Vance, either. Vance praised Sanders’ offseason workout regimen in his ability to blossom at the varsity level this fall.

“Reid had two great offseasons,” he said. “He has worked hard to get stronger and faster. He has set certain goals for himself and works very hard to achieve those goals.”

Sanders first burst onto the varsity scene in an Oct. 7 game against defending 4A Division I state champion La Vega. He rushed for 121 yards and two touchdowns, but the Panthers lost 34-20. It was Liberty Hill’s second straight defeat to La Vega after falling to the Pirates in last year’s 4A Division I Region IV final.

The Panthers were competitive with La Vega from first to final whistle in both last year’s playoff game and the meeting this season. That has Sanders optimistic about the Panthers’ potential to make a deep postseason run.

“There aren’t many tougher teams around than them,” he said. “We just have to focus game by game. We can’t get psyched out by anybody because we have just as much talent as anyone.”

And what if the Panthers get a chance to exact some revenge on the Pirates?

“The seniors will be riled up,” he said. “They won’t want to be beaten three times. We’ll be pumped up and probably more determined than we’ve ever been before.”

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