Panthers advance with come-from-behind victory over Sealy
By Keith Sparks
BASTROP — Friday’s matchup with the previously undefeated Sealy Tigers was anticipated to be one of the best matchups in the state, and it delivered. In what resulted in the Panthers’ first close game since a one-point loss to Hutto in September, Liberty Hill moved forward to the State Quarterfinal with a 35-21 comeback win over the Tigers at Bastrop Memorial Stadium.
Although the Panthers have typically made the running game look easy from the get-go, Sealy’s defense made it look more difficult than usual, often holding the Panthers to runs of three or four yards and rarely giving up the big plays Panther fans are accustomed to seeing. With 4:24 left in the first quarter, the Panthers were able to finish off a long, difficult drive with a 10-yard rushing touchdown by quarterback Jacob Cearley to take the first lead of the game.
The Panther defense made Sealy work equally as hard on the other end, but a tricky pitch play allowed them break free with a big first down, eventually ending with a 28-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Garret Zaskoda to AJ McGee, who had a huge evening, to knot the game at 7-7 late in the first.
Liberty Hill continued to move the ball, one run after another, but fumbled deep in enemy territory to end what looked like a promising drive. Sealy took advantage with yet another dose of trickery, using a wide-receiver pass to find the end zone on a 41-yard touchdown completion to take a 14-7 lead in the second quarter.
Panther running back Kyle Harrison had his longest run of the evening on Liberty Hill’s ensuing possession, taking off for a 43-yard gain before tying the game with a three-yard touchdown run to make it 14-14.
Both teams were forced to punt in the second quarter before Sealy scored on an incredible 41-yard Hail Mary to a leaping McGee as time expired in the first half, and Sealy took a 21-14 lead into halftime while seemingly stealing whatever momentum the Panthers had built.
After four punts to start the second half, two consecutively from each team, Shane Gonzalez scored from nine yards out to tie the game at 21-21. Mason Ogle subsequently forced Sealy into a third-and-long situation with a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, immediately followed by one of the most important sacks of the game by Kory Schmidt that forced Sealy to punt from deep in their own territory.
After another typical Panther drive, spearheaded by Harrison and Gonzalez in the backfield, Harrison waltzed into the end zone from eight yards out to give Liberty Hill a 28-21 lead with 8:13 left to play.
With their season on the line and less than eight minutes left in the game, Sealy executed play after play, converting on a fourth down and making Panther fans nervous. Sealy was able to get into the end zone on a run, but a holding penalty was called on the play, after which Zaskoda was sacked twice in a row on third and fourth down to force a turnover on downs.
Up by one possession, Liberty Hill executed as well as they have all season, ending with a read option that Cearley wisely kept, allowing him to quite literally walk into the end zone from 20 yards out and give the Panthers a two-possession lead with 1:37 left in the game.
Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker was unsurprised by his team’s late-game execution, explaining that he’s known all season long that they were capable of doing so while praising their ability to execute in practice.
“I’ve been proud of our young men all year long,” Walker said. “You see what I get. This bunch has a been a good practice bunch, too. Sometimes, that’s hard to do this late in the season when you’re tired and all that stuff. We have a great group of seniors. None of this surprised me tonight. I know it surprised a lot of people that we were able to come back from behind and all that, but that’s what Liberty Hill is all about.”
To put the cherry on top, Sealy fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Liberty Hill recovered, after which they knelt to wind the clock down and end the game.
Harrison finished the game with 250 rushing yards and two touchdowns, Gonzalez finished with 105 yards and one rushing touchdown, and Cearley finished with 45 yards and two rushing touchdowns.
Defensively, Brenden Ketchem led the way with 14 tackles and a sack, followed by Ogle with 10 tackles and 3 sacks. Wyatt Cheney finished the game with 10 tackles, as well.
The Panthers will now advance to the State Quarterfinal against La Vernia at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, at San Marcos High School.