Panthers beat #5 state-ranked China Spring in thrilling 59-58 victory
By KEITH SPARKS
Most football coaches would agree that every good football team has what they would call their “signature game.” On Friday, against the number five team in the state, the Panthers had theirs.
Liberty Hill was on the winning end of the most thrilling game of the season, by far, as they beat China Spring by a final score of 59-58 after an incredible comeback effort.
Before leaving the field after the win Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker said the win over China Spring ranks among his best as a Head Coach.
“It ranks up there with them,” he said. “My last loss at Rogers, we lost 73-72 in overtime, but this one’s up there. It’s a good one.”
Walker also said he thinks their gutsy performance is an accurate representation of the players’ fight, and hopes that it will kick start them into having the same amount of confidence in themselves that the coaches have in them.
“That says a lot about them,” Walker said of his team’s ability to fight back. “That says a lot about Liberty Hill kids, or young men, I don’t like using the word ‘kids.’ That says a lot about the Liberty Hill young men and their fight. I know they have it, and I think we’re going to build from that and keep digging on. I think they’re finally believing me that we can be a pretty good football team, and I’m just so proud of those guys.”
The Panthers’ evening started out rough, as their first drive ended with an interception on third and 7, followed quickly by a 67-yard touchdown drive by China Spring. They scored on a 1-yard run by all-district linebacker and part-time running back Brayden Mathis.
Liberty Hill answered quickly, though, as running back Kyle Harrison took off for a 54-yard touchdown run, less than two minutes after China Spring’s first touchdown, to even the score at 7-7 with 4:27 left in the first quarter.
China Spring started their next drive from their own 25-yard line and initially struggled to get much going. Running back Erik Hart eventually got the Cougars a first down, but Liberty Hill’s Brady Brewer tackled a China Spring receiver well behind the line of scrimmage for a 7-yard loss shortly thereafter. On second and 17, Johnson found wide receiver Tyrick James wide open for a 72-yard touchdown reception to take a 14-7 lead, as a defensive lapse hurt the Panthers in the worst way.
A holding penalty on Liberty Hill made their next drive a tough one from the start, as they were unable to overcome a first and 20 and were ultimately forced to punt on fourth and 6.
The Cougar offense carved up the Liberty Hill defense relatively easily following the Panthers’ punt, ending with a 4-yard touchdown run by James, but they were unsuccessful on a two-point conversion, making it a 20-7 ballgame midway through the second quarter.
Panther fullback Hunter Oncken broke loose for a 53-yard run on their next possession, setting up Harrison for his second touchdown of the game on a 17-yard run, and the Panthers were within one possession at 20-14.
Hart made it look easy for China Spring following Harrison’s second touchdown, running for multiple 20-plus yard gains, ending with a 25-yard touchdown run and a successful two-point conversion to take a 28-14 lead with 5:53 left in the second quarter.
The Panthers would not be denied, however, as the offensive showcase from both teams continued. Liberty Hill ran the ball successfully time after time to complete a 70-yard drive that ended with yet another touchdown run from Harrison, his third, to make it 28-21 in favor of China Spring with 1:27 left before halftime.
China Spring continued their first-half offensive clinic as they showed off their passing game, first with a 21-yard completion to James, and next with a 38-yard touchdown pass to Nicholas Brooks and another two-point conversion to put them up 36-21.
Liberty Hill kicker Michael Shipley would miss a 54-yard field goal by just a few inches as the halftime buzzer went off, and the Panthers went into halftime down 36-21.
A rare punt by the Cougars would be the result of their first second-half drive, followed by another punt from Liberty Hill. The Panthers barely avoided disaster as a poor snap hit the turf, and Shipley was only able to get 9 yards out of a punt that nearly ended in a devastating turnover.
The Panther defense was able to force China Spring into a fourth down and 6 scenario, but the Cougars called timeout and drew up a play that they ran to perfection, ending with a 33-yard touchdown reception by James to take a 44-21 lead with 8:00 left in the third quarter.
Harrison started out the Panthers’ following drive with a huge run, and a personal foul on China Spring gave them an extra 15 yards. Jakob Schofield followed that up with a first-down run of his own, and quarterback Brenden Ketchem was able to score on a 1-yard sneak despite some negative running plays and a false start penalty. With 4:15 left in the third, the Panthers were down 44-28.
A perfectly placed onside kick by Shipley, recovered by Brewer, gave the Panthers a second straight possession in the third quarter with great field position at the opposing 43. Schofield and Ketchem finished the job on the ground, ending with a 3-yard touchdown run by Schofield and a two-point conversion by Harrison to make it a one-possession game at 44-36 with 15 seconds left in the third quarter.
A huge defensive stand by the Panthers forced the Cougars to punt early in the fourth quarter, and Liberty Hill had a chance to tie a game that looked to be nearly out of reach in the third quarter.
From their own 26-yard line, Harrison once again broke loose for the Panthers, gaining 73 yards before being tackled at the 1-yard line. Ketchem made sure his work didn’t go to waste with a 1-yard quarterback sneak, and Schofield completed the two-point conversion to tie the game at 44-44 with 10:55 left to play
A well-executed drive by the Cougars gave them what looked like a scoring opportunity inside the 20-yard line, but a fumble by Johnson as he dropped back to pass was recovered by Kory Schmidt, and the Panthers had all the momentum, or so it seemed.
On the very first play of their ensuing possession, the Panthers fumbled in the backfield, giving China Spring the ball right back and killing any momentum they had in the process.
James, the Panthers’ 6’3” 230-pound receiver, put his size to use as he broke a number of tackles before diving into the end zone on a 30-yard touchdown reception. A double reverse on the resulting two-point conversion allowed the Cougars to waltz into the end zone untouched and take a 52-44 lead with 5:39 left in the game.
On fourth and 9, down by eight with only 3:55 to play, the future looked bleak for the Panthers. They had yet to complete a pass in the game, but running the ball on fourth and 9 was hardly an option. A throw that looked to be slightly out of reach for Reece Hudson was inexplicably reeled in with one hand as the defender held onto his other arm, and Hudson’s game-saving reception was good for 52 yards despite the pass interference, which was wisely declined. Harrison would follow that up with a 5-yard touchdown run and the ensuing two-point conversion to tie it at 52-52 with 3:34 left.
On the following kickoff, the Panthers gave up a massive return to give the Cougars possession at the opposing 12-yard line, but they scored quickly on an 8-yard run by James. The two-point conversion was no good as Reid Sanders came up with the sack on Johnson, and the Panthers would regain possession down by only six with 2:34 left in the game.
On third and 1, Oncken took off for a clutch 40-yard gain to the Cougars’ 16-yard line with 1:25 left to play. The Liberty Hill coaching staff executed perfect clock management on the drive, and runs by Schofield and Ketchem set Harrison up for a 15-yard touchdown on third and 9 with just 28 seconds to play. Shipley’s extra point went right down the middle to give the Panthers a 59-58 lead.
The game was far from over, though, given the abilities of China Spring’s high-powered offense led by Johnson and James. James caught a first-down pass on third and 10 to keep the drive alive and give the Cougars an opportunity to score with 7.3 seconds left. In a prevent defense, the Panthers dropped way back to avoid giving up the Hail Mary. James caught a pass in the end zone, but was ruled out of bounds by the officials with 2.3 seconds left.
With what looked like one last opportunity, Johnson threw it up to James, but a defensive pass interference on Liberty Hill was called in the end zone, giving the Cougars the ball at the 21-yard line and a chance to win it with a field goal. The first attempt was missed, but play was whistled dead on a false start prior to the kick. From just over 30 yards out, China Spring’s final attempt was missed short, and the Panthers’ 59-58 lead would hold.
Walker said the Panthers showed on Friday night that regardless of what the scoreboard says, they have the ability to fight back against any given opponent.
“You never know how anybody’s going to respond when you get down two or three touchdowns to a team you haven’t beaten in a while,” Walker said. “It showed me that they’re not just going to give up. They’re not going to throw in the towel. Maybe they showed me a little more fight than I thought they had. I didn’t know if we’d be able to go out and finish that game.”
Harrison finished the game with 285 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns, and two two-point conversions, Ketchem finished with 43 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, and 52 passing yards, Oncken finished with 151 rushing yards, and Schofield finished with 92 rushing yards, a rushing touchdown and a two-point conversion. Hudson finished with 52 receiving yards.
Liberty Hill is now 6-2 on the season with one regular season game remaining at Gatesville on Friday, Nov. 10, before the playoffs begin.