Panthers dominate second half vs Canyon Lake en route to 38-17 win
By KEITH SPARKS
Home field advantage can be a rarity come playoff time, and the Panthers were lucky enough to have it during their first playoff game against the Canyon Lake Hawks last Friday night. Liberty Hill Head Coach Jerry Vance understood how important that was for his players, especially the seniors who played in their last game ever at Panther Stadium.
“I think it was huge for us with this bunch,” Vance said regarding home field advantage. “I think it was just huge. I thought we did a good job with it, and it was good for the seniors to leave this field with one last win.”
Vance explained during the week prior that in a game where both teams like to run the football, scoring on each possession becomes that much more important. In a run-heavy game, the number of possessions can be few, so capitalizing on those possessions is key.
Canyon Lake established that they’d do the same, scoring on their first possession of the game on a 10-yard pass from quarterback Ben Fulton to running back Tanner Faris to take a 7-0 lead less than four minutes into the first quarter.
It looked as if they’d put the Panthers in a big hole early, as Liberty Hill quarterback Garrett Wright threw an interception on Liberty Hill’s third offensive play of the game. Panther cornerback Dyllon Joiner was able to give his quarterback another shot, though, as the Hawks’ first play after taking over was also an interception, this time in favor of the Panthers.
Wright’s very next pass was a 44-yard strike to Daniel Park, who was dropped at the opposing 4-yard line. That set up another passing play to Liberty Hill’s Samuel Stiles, who scored on a 10-yard reception from Wright to even the score at 7-7. Wright finished with 69 yards and touchdown through the air while completing four of his six attempts.
Canyon Lake established great field position on their ensuing possession with a 51-yard pass from Fulton to Brandon Courtney, who was tackled at the Panthers’ 24-yard line. On fourth down from the 18-yard line, the Hawks opted to go for it all instead of settling for a field goal. Fulton connected again, this time to Austin Brennan, for an 18-yard touchdown on fourth and 4 to take a 14-7 lead with 1:18 left in the first quarter.
The Panthers scored on one of Coach Vance’s stereotypical drives, running 5-yard play after 5-yard play up the middle, wearing down the defense in the process and setting up a 35-yard touchdown run by Hunter Oncken with 10:08 left in the second quarter to even the score at 14-14.
Canyon Lake’s next drive ended in a punt, as did the Panthers’. Liberty Hill’s punt was a bit more exciting, as a muffed recovery by the Hawks ended up with a Panther player attempting to recover and, instead, knocked it out of bounds and back into the Hawks’ possession with three minutes to play in the first half.
A 30-yard run by the Hawks gave them a shot at scoring before halftime with the ball at the opposing 32-yard line and two minutes left in the second quarter, but the Panthers were able to hold Canyon Lake on yet another fourth down attempt, giving Liberty Hill the ball at their own 28-yard line with 1:04 left in the first half. The Panthers would simply run the ball up the middle to run the clock down to zero and take the tie ballgame into halftime.
Freddie White started out the second half with a 27-yard run to give the Panthers a great scoring opportunity with the ball at the opposing 32. The Panthers ended up in a fourth and 1 situation, but they were able to capitalize on a first-down run up the middle. Liberty Hill followed it up with an 18-yard run, falling just short of the goal line, that set Oncken up for an easy touchdown up the middle, his second of the game, to give the Panthers a 21-14 lead.
Liberty Hill held the Hawks to another turnover on downs as they went for it on fourth and 10 from their own 25-yard line, giving the Panthers fantastic field position. They had seemingly capitalized on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Wright to Dalton Phifer, but a hold on Liberty Hill brought them back 10 yards and forced the Panthers to kick a field goal, instead. Michael Shipley connected on a 35-yard try to give the Panthers a 24-14 lead with 3:32 left in the third quarter.
Liberty Hill yet again forced the Hawks into a fourth-down situation, and this time they punted. The Panthers took over with 1:28 left in the third quarter, up 10, and Wright took off for a 42-yard run to put the Panthers in the red zone at the end of the third quarter. Oncken was able to punch in a 2-yard run for his third rushing touchdown of the game to put the Panthers up 31-14 with 11:10 left to play. He finished the game with 119 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
The game was truly a tale of two halves, as a tie game at halftime turned into a three-score victory for the Panthers.
“We had some poor tackling,” Vance said regarding why the game was so close at halftime. “We did some things wrong. We came back out in the second half and we made those adjustments. We came back out and we started playing more fundamentally sound. In the third quarter we did exactly what we love to do. I think they had six offensive plays that quarter. We kept it away from them.”
With 3:17 left to play, the Hawks were able to put a field goal through the uprights to bring them within two scores at 31-17, but the Panthers responded with a touchdown on their own as Ethan Thom recorded his first rushing touchdown of the game to put Liberty Hill up for good at 38-17, which was the final score.
Thom is one of a few backs that benefitted from some recent injuries in the backfield, giving he and some of the other running backs valuable reps in the absence of Reid Sanders, which is something Coach Vance thinks will be huge when Sanders is back on the field.
“The good thing about it is his backup has gotten a lot of really good reps,” Vance said. “We feel pretty confident when we get Reid back things will be a lot, lot better.”
“I thought we did real well,” Vance said. “Canyon Lake likes to play the same type of ball that we do, and you’ve got to come out and, like I’ve said before, you have to be efficient with your possessions, and make sure that you take care of business out there. I thought our kids really came out and played well tonight.”