Panthers destroy Ducks, 63-0 to keep playoff hopes alive

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By Scott Akanewich

Sports Editor

One big, very deep breath.

It’s what everyone involved with Liberty Hill football can enjoy after Friday’s 63-0 victory against Taylor at Panther Stadium.

The home side entered the contest riding a three-game losing streak, which spanned six week since the last time the Purple-and-Gold tasted victory with a 59-13 road win against Pflugerville Connally all the way back on Sept. 19.

According to Panthers head coach Jeff Walker, a King Kong-sized monkey was removed from his team’s back with the win.

“I’m really happy for our kids,” said Walker. “They never gave up on their coaches or each other.”

The memories of failures which haunted Walker and his players over the past month-and-a-half were quickly put to the sword early on against the Ducks.

After the visitors won the coin toss and elected to receive, the Taylor offense took the field and quickly completed a pass for a 12-yard gain on its opening play from scrimmage.

But, it might have been the high point on the evening for the Ducks as on the next snap, sophomore Kaden McMahan stepped in front of a Taylor receiver, intercepted a pass attempt by senior quarterback Michael Schneider and took it back the distance, 37 yards for a touchdown only 37 seconds into the game for a 7-0 advantage.

All that did was set the tone for the entire evening as the Panthers ran riot over the Ducks in just about every way possible on a football field.

The Liberty Hill defense forced a three-and-out on Taylor’s next possession, then the Panthers’ offense got its first opportunity of the game to go to work, taking over on its own 40-yard line.

Blake Simpson took a handoff from senior signal-caller Jacob Cearley and embarked on the first of a series of bruising runs, gaining five yards and sending a message to the Ducks defenders they were in for a rough night at the office.

Only four plays later, Trey Seward took off on a 43-yard scoring sprint and just like that, it was 14-0.

Another three-and-out for the Ducks and the Panthers quickly went back to work, as Simpson carried three consecutive times, followed by an Eric De La Cruz cruncher up the middle before Simpson finished what he started with an eight-yard rumble into the end zone and it was 21-0, with still over five minutes remaining in the opening quarter.

Taylor put together an eight-play drive, moving into Liberty Hill territory on its next possession, but a missed 41-yard field goal attempt was the closest the Ducks would come to putting points on the board against a staunch Panthers defense.

What followed was Liberty Hill football at its finest.

Cearley led the Panthers’ offense on an epic 15-play, 80-yard drive the likes of which hasn’t been seen from the offense all season.

Seward’s lightning-quick cutback runs and dashes to the outside were complemented perfectly by the bashing, smashmouth inside running of Simpson and De La Cruz, culminating with Cearley’s three-yard scoring scamper, on which he strolled into the end zone untouched, increasing the Liberty Hill lead to 28-0.

Simpson pounded another score in from four yards out the next time the Panthers had the ball and it was 35-0 as the teams headed off at the half.

Liberty Hill got the ball to begin the second half and didn’t let off the gas, as Cearley hooked up with Seward on a 35-yard pass, which set up Simpson’s 25-yard scoring run on the next play, running the score to 42-0.

However, Seward was saving his most spectacular display of speed for his second touchdown of the game, a sparkling 83-yard sprint in which he outran the entire Taylor defense for a 49-0 advantage.

But, Simpson wasn’t about to be one-upped by his fellow junior, as he combined his trademark power with some speed of his own in breaking away for a 69-yard score to make it 56-0.

Fittingly, the Panthers’ final score of the night was a perfect bookend to McMahan’s pick-six, when senior Justin Coffee cut a route on the corner and took the ball back 36 yards for the game’s final margin.

In all, the Panthers piled up 501 yards of total offense, with 459 on the ground.

Seward carried 10 times for 201 yards a a pair of touchdowns, while Simpson rushed for 176 yards on 17 carries with four touchdowns and De La Cruz added 77 yards on 12 attempts.

Simpson was duly relieved about he and his teammates getting back to winning ways, he said.

“Getting this win is a big momentum-changer for us,” said Simpson. “It’s great for the community and it shows what we can do when we play as a team. Now, we just have to keep moving forward.”

Walker attributed his squad’s offensive prowess to making fewer mistakes and avoiding costly penalties, both of which had boondoggled his club over the past three games.

“We haven’t been bad on offense this year, but tonight we played a lot cleaner,” he said. “We’re pretty much back to our standard, so I’m happy.”

Walker was also pleased with the fact his club won the turnover battle, only committing two, while forcing five, including additional interceptions by Matthew Montes and Eric Byrd and a fumble recovery by Hadley Weems, which all killed Ducks drives.

“It was good to get on the right side of that one,” he said.

As for Seward’s continued dazzling big runs, the Panthers’ boss said he’s fine with some improvisation as long as critical yards are ground out first.

“I always tell Trey, ‘Just get me four yards,’” said Walker. “’After that, you can go be an athlete and make a play.’”

All that being said, he still wants his backs to hit the hole with a purpose, avoiding too much of the fancy stuff, he said.

“We’re not on ‘Dancing With The Stars’ here,” said Walker. “I don’t like our guys dancing a whole lot.”

The occasion marked the second consecutive game with Cearley once again under center and Walker said the offense’s improved production during that time is certainly no coincidence.

“I think Jacob gives us a calming effect,” said Walker. “I thought we needed a steady hand in there and the guys all believe in him.”

Entering the game, the Panthers needed to win their final two games of the regular season in order to qualify for the playoffs and now that mission is partially accomplished, with Walker hoping the victory will ease his players’ minds as they get ready for next week’s road showdown with Canyon Lake.

However, despite victory, Walker said the wounds created by recent defeats still haven’t sufficiently healed.

“All the wins are great,” he said. “But, we don’t enjoys wins as much as we suffer in defeat.”

But, all in all, he was pleased with finally posting a home victory in what for some was their final game on the gridiron at Panther Stadium.

“I really wanted to win this game for our seniors,” said Walker. “I want them to be able to feel really good about themselves and move forward with confidence.”

Liberty Hill (3-5, 1-3) must now defeat Canyon Lake by at least six points next week to return to the postseason and Walker knows what’s at stake for him and his players, he said.

“Next week is our first-round playoff game,” said Walker. “So, we’re going to work hard and see what we can do.”

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