Panthers enjoy season of highlights, challenges

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By KEITH SPARKS

The Panthers dealt with a variety of challenges through the regular season, including bigger schools, high-powered passing attacks, a two-week stretch between games, rivalries and tense district opponents.

But each week Liberty Hill found a way, outscoring opponents by nearly 200 points, and losing only once – by a point in overtime – without changing what the Panthers are all about, averaging a 39-point margin of victory over eight wins.

vs. Leander Glenn (W) 49-21
The Panthers’ first football game of the season was a bit of a question mark, considering it was Leander Glenn’s first “official” varsity football team as part of a district. Although they’re a 5A school, the class of 2019 is Glenn’s first senior class, giving Liberty Hill a huge advantage when it comes to experience.

Since then, Glenn has proven to be a legitimate opponent, winning their district at the 5A level and going 6-2 since the loss to the Panthers. Per usual, the Panthers wore the Grizzlies down with their Slot-T offense, and the Grizzlies’ lack of experience put them at a huge disadvantage.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they lost starting fullback, Jakob Schofield, for the entire season after he tore his ACL during the matchup with the Grizzlies.

@ Hutto (L) 52-51 (OT)
Just two games into the season, Liberty Hill faced arguably their most daunting opponent in years. The high-octane Hutto Hippos, led by UCLA-commit Chase Griffin, were a heavy favorite in the game, and for good reason.

Griffin was as good as advertised, throwing for a whopping seven touchdowns and marching the Hippos down the field with consistency.

The Panthers however, would not be outdone. Hutto’s defense was no match for the Panthers’ Slot-T offense, often looking lost as Liberty Hill fooled them with ball fakes. Running back Kyle Harrison had what may have been the best game of his career, finished with 323 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

The Panthers converted a huge-fourth down in the final minute of the game, followed by a QB sneak from Jacob Cearley and a two-point conversion from running back Shane Gonzalez that tied the game. Hutto scored a touchdown on their first possession of overtime, but so did the Panthers. Opting to go for two and the win, Liberty Hill went with a read option that fell apart quickly, ending the game with a one-point loss. Hutto currently remains undefeated at 8-0.

@ Manor (W) 38-12
Physically, the Panthers were clearly outmatched against the 5A Manor Mustangs, but per usual, that didn’t matter. It did, however, lead to the lowest-scoring game of the season for the Panthers, who had a hard time running the ball against what looked like grown men on the other side of the ball.

Nobody had more than one touchdown for the Panthers against Manor, a stark contrast from the Hutto game where Harrison scored five touchdowns on his own. This time, the wealth was spread around as five different Panthers scored a touchdown.

After leading 14-6 at halftime, the Panthers were able to find some breathing room in the second half, thanks in part to running back Shane Gonzalez’ first 100-yard rushing performance of his career. Eventually, Liberty Hill’s rushing attack wore the Mustangs down en route to a 38-12 victory.

vs. Pflugerville Connally (W) 89-34
Connally was yet another 5A team that had all the physical advantages over the Panthers, but were out-schemed and out-executed to near perfection. The Cougar defense looked like it had never seen the Slot-T offense before, and the Panthers were able to run the ball at will in what ended up being the highest-scoring game in Liberty Hill history.
Gonzalez and Harrison both ran for exactly 112 years, with Gonzalez getting into the end zone four times and Harrison getting in twice on the ground and once through the air. Defensively, the Panthers were dominant throughout most of the game, as well, holding Connally to -20 rushing yards on the evening and coming up with three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

The Panthers’ record-breaking performance was the perfect way for Liberty Hill to celebrate Homecoming.

@ Fredericksburg (W) 69-7
Heading into their first district matchup with Fredericksburg, the Panthers were coming off of two-straight bye weeks, something that’s almost unheard of in high school football. Unfortunately, the Panthers’ unique offense and their outright dominance makes it hard to find anybody outside of the district willing to play them.

While the bye weeks made Head Coach Jeff Walker nervous about complacency, the Panthers showed everything but. Walker called it the best performance he’s seen from his defense since he arrived at Liberty Hill, holding the Billies to just one score.

Injuries in the backfield forced Liberty Hill to trot out yet another new set of running backs, but Blake Simpson proved a valuable asset with 248 rushing yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries. Harrison, although rushing for a pedestrian (for him) 140 yards, scored four touchdowns on the evening on just 12 carries.

vs. Lampasas (W) 55-27
After an explosive performance against Fredericksburg the week prior, the Liberty Hill offense put up somewhat of a dud against the Lampasas Badgers, which sounds silly considering they won by 29. For the Panthers’ standards, though, that’s a close game.

Liberty Hill had a hard time getting anything going with the running game in the first half, outside of a 64-yard touchdown run by Harrison, forcing them to punt on two straight possessions – a rarity for the Panther offense. Uncharacteristically, Liberty Hill’s passing game is what kept them in this one, as quarterback Jacob Cearley kept multiple drives alive with huge third- and fourth-down conversions to give Liberty Hill a 21-13 halftime lead.

If the Hutto game wasn’t Harrison’s best performance of the regular season, it was this one. Harrison finished with 319 yards and five touchdowns, most of which were in the second half. Cearley had two 40-plus-yard rushing touchdowns, as well, making it arguably the best game of his young varsity career.

@ Burnet (W) 62-26
Prior to the Panthers’ matchup with the rival Burnet Bulldogs, everybody in the state favored Liberty Hill in a blowout. Burnet had won only two games on the season against two much smaller schools, and the Panthers were regularly putting up 50-plus points per game.

To everybody’s surprise, the Bulldogs looked like the better team in the first quarter, seemingly taking a page out of Hutto’s book by throwing lots of wide-receiver screens in the flat, which gave the Panthers trouble. Despite a rough start that allowed the Bulldogs to find success with the passing game, the Panthers held a 20-12 halftime lead.

Walker claimed he said little to nothing to his team during halftime, but you wouldn’t know it by watching the game. Liberty Hill rattled off 35 unanswered at one point over the third and fourth quarters to take a 62-19 lead, highlighted by a pick-six from cornerback Matthew Montes, before giving up a late touchdown after the game had been all but decided.

@ Taylor (W) 77-12
Following two of what Walker would consider disappointing performances against Burnet and Lampasas, the Panthers entered their matchup with the Taylor Ducks looking to find momentum. The game was chippy from the get-go, as the Ducks were flagged for multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for being too physical after the whistle.

Taylor took advantage of two Panther turnovers and some questionable officiating in the first half that erased what would have been back-to-back touchdowns for the Panthers. A first quarter interception by the Ducks and a big return gave allowed them to keep it close, as Liberty Hill led just 14-12 at the end of the first.

The second half was all Liberty Hill, as the Duck defense began to wear down, giving the Panthers a 35-12 halftime lead thanks in large part to two big touchdown runs from newly-appointed fullback Kristian Taggart. Highlighted by a 99-plus-yard touchdown by Harrison after a Duck punt was downed just inches from the opposing end zone, the second half was all Liberty Hill, as well, as they kept the Ducks from scoring even once in the final three quarters.

This was running back Shane Gonzalez’ first game back from injury, and he proved to be a huge addition to the Panther backfield, finishing with a team-high three touchdowns and 162 rushing yards on 18 carries, splitting the work with Harrison, who finished with one touchdown and 230 yards on 18 carries.

vs. Canyon Lake (W) 47-0
Prior to the start of the 2018 season, Canyon Lake was widely viewed as the only team that might challenge Liberty Hill for the district championship, but that soon faded as Canyon Lake lost back-to-back district games against Fredericksburg and Lampasas, both of which the Panthers beat with relative ease.

The Hawks are one of the few teams in addition to the Panthers that run the run-heavy Slot-T offense, which walked said he “hated” playing against. With the district championship already sealed, Liberty Hill had nothing to gain from the win, and Walker was afraid that shutting down Canyon Lake’s version of the Slot-T would show the rest of the state how to shut down his own. Regardless, the Panther defense dominated the entire game, shutting out the Hawks’ offense completely for their first shutout of the season.

The first quarter was what most expected, as both teams took time off the clock with long, drawn out, run-heavy possessions, and the Panthers scored the only touchdown of the quarter to take a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. The rest of the game was utter dominance for the Panthers, who scored 20 in the second quarter and 20 in the fourth while rarely allowing even a first down for the Hawks.

Harrison finished with 186 rushing yards and four touchdowns, Gonzalez finished with 100 rushing yards, Trey Seward finished with 78 rushing yards and one touchdown, and Taggart finished with 60 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Drake Oberpriller had a team-high 11 tackles, followed by Austin Knox, Cory Jellison, and Trey Riley with 10 each as the defense forced two fumbles and an interception by Brady Brewer.

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