Panthers inches shy of victory in state semifinal

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By SCOTT AKANEWICH
Sports Editor

Blake Simpson was one of the primary reasons Liberty Hill had advanced all the way to the Class 5A Division II state semifinals against Crosby on Friday night at Merrill Green Stadium in Bryan.

Although that fact was little consolation to the senior running back after coming up a yard short of the end zone on a 2-point conversion attempt as the clock ran out on the Panthers in a 62-61 overtime defeat to Crosby.

Simpson had 191 yards on 20 carries to go with four touchdowns and a pair of successful 2-point conversions in his final high-school game, but it was the one which got away in the waning seconds which will live on in the memories of Purple-and-Gold supporters.

According to Liberty Hill interim head coach Kent Walker, he decided to go for the win right then and there due to the momentum he believes his team had at the moment – although not without regret in the end.

“I think it was the right call to go for two – we had them back on their heels,” said Walker. “I may second guess myself for the rest of my life on that one.”

After both sides went 3-and-out on their respective opening possessions of the game, it looked as if there might not be another high-scoring shootout for the third week in a row, but the score was only 14-7 Crosby after the opening quarter.

That all went out the window in the second period, as the teams combined for 45 points, including an 82-yard touchdown pass from Charlie Calabretta to Simpson and a 51-yard scoring run by Trey Seward.

Crosby responded with a 75-yard kickoff return for a score by Kameren Kirkwood, which was followed by a 40-yard scoring pass from Deniquez Dunn to Reggie Branch and the score was 35-31 in favor of the Cougars at halftime.

Crosby surprised the Panthers with an onside kick – which they recovered – to begin the third quarter, but was forced to punt after a 3-and-out.

After the Panthers returned the favor on their opening possession of the second half, Crosby partially blocked a Liberty Hill punt, which gave the ball to the Cougars on the Panthers’ 19-yard line and it only took one play for them to take advantage, as Dunn hit Jaylen Herman with a 19-yard strike to extend the lead to 42-31.

Simpson then finished off a 6-play, 75-yard scoring drive – which included a 56-yard run by Noah Long – with an 8-yard rumble, but those would be Liberty Hill’s only points of the quarter and Crosby led, 55-39, after three following another pair of Cougars touchdowns to seemingly take control of the contest.

However, the Panthers’ defense stepped up by keeping Crosby off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter, while Simpson and Seward ran in from 34 and 20 yards out, respectively.

Simpson bashed in from close range for two points after each score, which left it 55-55 at the end of regulation.

But not before some controversy.
Andon Thomas went back in punt formation on a 4th-and-13 from the Crosby 49, only to lob a high-arcing ball to Seward, who was left alone on the sideline for a big gain and a first down.

However, the play was called back on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Panthers for deception.

Ironically, Walker said the officiating crew was the same one which had worked the 2018 Class 4A state championship game, in which the Panthers had run the same play, only for it to stand.

But, the craziness was only beginning, as Dunn was stripped of the ball on a broken play on the ensuing Cougars possession and Carter Hudson recovered, setting up Liberty Hill at the Crosby 47-yard line.

After Simpson was stopped short of a first down on a 4th-and-4, Crosby took back over, only for Bryce Rampy to intercept a Crosby desperation pass at the end of regulation, which the Panthers senior returned all the way back into Cougars territory only for time to run out.

Branch scored from 13 yards out on the Cougars’ first possession of overtime, which set the stage for Simpson, as he scored from 25 yards out on the first play from scrimmage after the Panthers got the ball.

After a time out, the decision was made to go for the win, which resulted in the Panthers falling a yard short of booking a trip to Dallas for the state championship game next week.

Still, Walker could hardly blame his offense, but focused more on the fact his defense allowed a combined 157 points in the final three playoff games.

“We didn’t play well defensively the last three weeks, but I thought we actually played a little better tonight in spurts than we had the two previous weeks,” he said. “But you know, they have some really good athletes and we had them contained and then they bounced and reversed field on us and broke broke containment a few times, but you know I could replay the whole game in my head right now.”

Junior linebacker Andon Thomas said he was pleased with how his teammates had stepped up over the course of the entire season.
“I’m just proud of this whole team,” he said. “We went through all kinds of adversity and I just love this whole team.”

Walker offered additional praise from his point of view.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these young men,” he said. “They’re an extremely resilient group – there’s so many things they could’ve used as excuses this season, but they didn’t.”

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