By KEITH SPARKS
After the Panthers were forced to wait another week to start their season, thanks to Hurricane Harvey’s effects on La Grange, they finally got on the field for a home game on Friday, Sept. 8, against the La Vernia Bears. The Panthers celebrated Senior Night prior to the game, as Liberty Hill’s 26 senior football players took the field with their parents to be honored.
The first 10 minutes of the first quarter were relatively uneventful until La Vernia quarterback Clayton Chadwick completed a 47-yard pass to get the Bears down to Liberty Hill’s 34-yard line, after which Chadwick completed two more passes, the second completed for a 13-yard touchdown pass. The Bears missed the ensuing extra point, giving them a 6-0 lead with 5:01 left in the first.
The Panthers immediately answered, as 8- and 10-yard runs from Liberty Hill quarterback Brenden Ketchem and running back Hunter Oncken set up a 60-yard rushing touchdown from senior transfer running back Elijah Davis. After a successful extra point, the Panthers led 7-6 with 4:10 left to play in the first quarter.
Prior to the game, Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker expressed his concern for Chadwick’s ability to break out for big runs. With about two minutes left to play in the first quarter, he showed just that. Chadwick broke out for a 49-yard run to the opposing 9-yard line, after which he found Brian Beltran for a 7-yard touchdown pass. The extra point was good, and La Vernia took a 13-7 lead with 1:54 left in the first quarter.
On the Panthers’ next possession, Ketchem showed his running ability, as well. His 21-yard run, followed by Harrison’s 14-yard run, set up a 6-yard rushing touchdown by Oncken to give Liberty Hill a 14-13 lead after another successful extra point.
After forcing La Vernia to punt on fourth and 15, thanks in large part to a tackle-for-loss by Liberty Hill’s Grant Supak, Davis was able to scamper for a 27-yard rushing touchdown, his second of the game, to make it 21-13 in favor of the Panthers.
Supak once again got into the backfield on the Bears’ next possession for a 9-yard sack, forcing La Vernia to punt. Ketchem soon found tight end Dalton Phifer for a 64-yard pass to the 1-yard line, followed by Oncken punching in his second rushing touchdown of the first half to give the Panthers a 28-13 lead with 5:20 left in the second quarter.
Immediately after Oncken’s touchdown run, the Panthers surprised the Bears with an onside kick, which they recovered easily. Their ensuing drive lasted only a minute, ending with another rushing touchdown by Oncken, set up by a 15-yard run by Davis to the 2-yard line. Oncken’s touchdown put the Panthers up 35-13 with 4:17 left in the second quarter.
La Vernia was forced to punt yet again on their next possession, but the Panthers were forced into their own fourth-down scenario, ending in a turnover on downs with 35 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Bears, however, decided they’d give the ball back right away with a fumble on their first play of the drive, giving the Panthers one more opportunity to score before the half with 31 seconds left.
Ketchem took off for another big run, this time for 25 yards to the opposing 20-yard line with 16 seconds left. Ketchem finished the job shortly thereafter with a 20-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Harrison to take a 42-13 lead into halftime.
Davis returned the second-half kickoff 98 yards before La Vernia’s kicker was able to trip him up by the shoelaces at the 2-yard line. Neither Davis nor Oncken were able to punch it in from the 2-yard line, so Ketchem did it himself with a 2-yard quarterback keeper up the middle to take a 49-13 lead with 10:40 left in the third quarter.
Liberty Hill was nearly able to record a safety after the snap flew over Chadwick’s head into the end zone, but he was able to escape and gain a few yards on the play. La Vernia was ultimately forced to punt, giving the Panthers the ball at midfield.
Ketchem found holes in the defense that allowed him to break off two big runs midway through the second quarter, capped off by a 2-yard pitch to Davis on the outside who reached inside the pylon for a touchdown to give the Panthers a 56-13 lead.
Liberty Hill defensive back Wyatt Cheney intercepted a pass from Chadwick on their next possession and looked like he had room to run, but fumbled on the return, giving the ball back to La Vernia and giving them a first down in the process.
For the rest of the game, it was a defensive stalemate as the Panther coaching staff put the backups in and began milking the clock. Neither team could score for the last 19-plus minutes, and the Panthers won their first game of the season by a final score of 56-13.
The Panthers’ 56 points in Walker’s first game as Head Coach is more than they’ve scored in a game over the past three seasons, but he refused to take any credit for it.
“Good players, ya know? I know it’s not the coach,” Walker said of his team’s offensive dominance. “Kids played hard. Every night, I don’t want to let them down, so we work hard as a coaching staff to give them the best chance. We’ve got playmakers, and they made plays. It’s nothing I did. There’s no secret. It’s Liberty Hill kids playing like Liberty Hill kids can play.”
After a 1-0 start to the season, the Panthers will play Brownwood at home next Friday, September 15 at 7:30 pm.