Panthers, Bulldogs reunited in new football district

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By Lauren Jette

The path to a third state championship will be much tougher for the Liberty Hill Panthers the next two years after UIL released the new district realignments on Monday.

Liberty Hill ISD was moved into the district just north, which is District 13-4A, for the 2016 and 2017 football seasons.

A rivalry with Burnet was renewed, along with China Spring, Gatesville, Lampasas and defending state champion Waco La Vega in the mix.

“We’ve never been in a district with La Vega or China Spring. Obviously we played La Vega last year,” head football coach Jerry Vance said.

“We’ve been in a district with Lampasas, Burnet. There was a period of time when we played China Spring in non-district several times. Gatesville was in our district and we played them non-district. They’re familiar with us and we’re familiar with them. Another new challenge.”

Having been through numerous UIL realignments, Vance was prepared for just about any possibility on Monday morning.

“It’s like I’ve said before, when you go to this realignment thing, it’s kind of like Christmas, you never know what you’re going to find when you open up that packet,” Vance said. “I can’t say I was really surprised about us going north with La Vega and Burnet and them. I was a little surprised that Taylor didn’t go with us. Now Taylor drives through Liberty Hill and Burnet to go to Fredericksburg, Boerne and Canyon Lake, which is a head-scratcher for sure. After all these times we’ve done this, anything can happen when you open up that packet.”

La Vega knocked Liberty Hill out of the playoffs this past season in the regional quarterfinal at Killeen. It was fiercely cold with rain most of the game, but the Panthers were able to hold the Pirates scoreless for four quarters to force overtime, where La Vega came up with a touchdown, but missed the extra point. The Panthers were unable to come up with six points to force another overtime. Now, the Panthers will see the Pirates again in district.

“We’ve been in districts when we were the defending state champions and it didn’t bother some of them. It’s a whole new team,” Vance said.

“The great thing about high school football is it changes every year. Each team changes every year. The dynamics change. La Vega was very, very talented. They’ve got some kids coming back that were very athletic and all of that and obviously they should be the ones picked to win the district, but you don’t give up anything until the game is over.”

The Pirates won the district championship with a perfect record under head coach Willie Williams and defeated Canyon Lake, Rockport Fulton, China Spring, Carthage and Argyle 33-31 in the state championship at NRG Stadium in Houston in December 2015.

China Spring finished second with a 4-1 district record and 12-2 overall, both of those losses against La Vega, who knocked the Cougars out in the regional championship 20-7.

Gatesville took the third district playoff spot last season with a 6-7, 3-2 record. The two losses were to La Vega and China Spring, and the Hornets defeated Taylor and La Vernia in the playoffs before getting knocked out by China Spring.

An opponent familiar to Panther fans, Burnet claimed the last playoff spot with a 6-5, 2-3 record with wins over Lampasas and Robinson. Liberty Hill ran the Bulldogs out of the playoffs in the bi-district round, 47-28.

The Bulldogs will graduate quarterback Austin Moore and wide receiver Joel Johnson, while wide receiver Steven Gallardo gives the new Burnet quarterback an experienced target.

In 2015, the Lampasas Badgers finished at the bottom of the district standings without a win, and only two wins on the season, at Lago Vista (42-28) and at Canyon Lake (42-14).

“Lampasas is changing coaches, so you don’t know what’s going to happen there,” Vance said.

“We’ve played Burnet and I have so much respect for Burnet. China Spring Coach (Mark) Bell does a great job. You never can tell what you’re going to get from them. He keeps you on your toes and on your heels a lot. He does a great job.

“Coach (Kyle) Cooper at Gatesville has turned that thing around. I can’t say that they are the toughest, I think it’s pretty equal, to tell you the truth.”

The Panthers finished with a 10-3 record on the season after going undefeated en route to the district championship, with wins over Boerne, Fredericksburg, Canyon Lake, Taylor and Bandera.

Liberty Hill defeated Burnet and Gonzales in the playoffs before running into the Pirates.

Vance acknowledges it’s a much tougher district for the Panthers, but that doesn’t mean anything will change, style-wise.

“We’re going to do what we do. Other than Le Vega, we’ve beat all those teams before,” Vance said. “China Spring has beat us a couple of times, Burnet’s beat us a couple of times, Lampasas has beat us once and Gatesville has beat us once. We’re not going to change anything. Do what we do. Consistency is a great thing and I think it plays to our advantage.”

Liberty Hill will need to reload on the offense, as it is losing to graduation star fullback Jon Shannon, who amassed 1,399 yards on 229 carries in 10 games for 19 touchdowns after missing three games with a wrist injury.

Also leaving are running back Caleb Guerin, who recorded 760 yards on 82 carries in 8 games for 8 touchdowns, after missing the beginning of the season with an injury, and Gage Fulps, who added 523 yards on 99 carries in 12 games for 6 touchdowns.

Returners include quarterback Garrett Wright and starting center Kyle Huppee, cornerback Dyllon Joiner, who pulled in 7 interceptions on the season and fullback Justin Burkett, who accounted for 737 yards on 110 carries and 9 touchdowns.

2016 will be a challenging season for the Panthers, but if they can earn one of those playoff spots, a deep post-season run is possible.

“I think whoever comes out of that district is going to have a shot at running a long way in post-district,” Vance said.

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