Panthers outmatch Bears in La Vernia, 30-0

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Liberty Hill cornerback and punt returner Dyllon Joiner returns a punt during the Panthers’ victory against La Vernia. Liberty Hill holds a 1-0 record this season. (Alex Rubio Photo)

Liberty Hill cornerback and punt returner Dyllon Joiner returns a punt during the Panthers’ victory against La Vernia. Liberty Hill holds a 1-0 record this season. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By KEITH SPARKS

LA VERNIA — Friday night’s game against La Vernia was Liberty Hill’s from the minute the Panthers stepped on the field. The defense set the tone early on, making it clear that the Bears were outmatched. The offense followed suit.

The Bears chose to receive the opening kickoff, going three and out on their opening drive. The Panthers defensive dominance was capped off by a pass deflection on third down by Dyllon Joiner, forcing the Bears to punt.

After being set up by Joiner’s 22-yard punt return, the Panthers first offensive drive of the game was only two plays long. Senior running back Justin Burkett started off with a 5-yard run up the gut, which set up sophomore running back Freddie White for a 26-yard touchdown run up the middle on the very next play, where he went virtually untouched.

On the ensuing kickoff, La Vernia’s kick returner fumbled at the Bears’ own 20-yard line, giving the ball right back to the Panthers in scoring territory. Garrett Wright connected with senior tight end Dalton Phifer for a 17-yard gain, setting Burkett up for a 3-yard touchdown run up the gut.

On the next drive, Panthers’ senior cornerback Slade Cummins intercepted a poorly thrown ball and returned it 35 yards to the Bears’ 1-yard line. Burkett punched in his second rushing touchdown of the first quarter to quickly make it 21-0 Panthers in the first quarter.

Junior kicker Michael Shipley was near perfect in the first half, nailing all three extra points and hitting a 39-yard field before bouncing his second attempt off the upright from 41 yards out. He was two for two on field goals in the second half, and three for four on the night.

Panthers’ senior quarterback Wright got to take a few shots at the end zone in the first half, two of which were gorgeous passes that were dropped by wide-open receivers, and another that was placed just out of reach of sophomore running back and part-time slot receiver Kyle Harrison. Before the season started, Panthers’ Head Coach Jerry Vance was asked about improving upon the passing game this season.

“Anybody can pass the ball,” Vance said. “What we’re working on is catching it.”

This was one of the few issues the Liberty Hill offense struggled with on Friday night. The vast majority of Wright’s passes were on target, protection was solid, and routes were run well, but Wright’s receivers just could not reel them in.

“Was I not right?” Vance said with a chuckle when reminded of his preseason quote. “We dropped two touchdown passes that were what we refer to as ‘hand grenades.’ The receiver would be the only one to be killed if it were a hand grenade. Nobody was around ‘em.”

With five minutes to go in the first half, Burkett ripped off two almost comical 20-yard runs, carrying half of the defense on his back each time, quite literally. On the same drive, fellow senior running back Freddie White broke off for a beautiful 50-yard run with 4:07 left in the first half, but was caught from behind right at the goal line, forcing a fumble into the end zone that resulted in a touchback, giving the Bears the ball at their own 20. The score remained 24-0 at halftime.

The Panthers’ “running-back-by-committee” system was in peak form against La Vernia.

Burkett got the call most often, with 15 carries on the night, leading to 101 yards rushing and two touchdowns, both of which were in the first quarter. White finished with 86 rushing yards and a touchdown on just seven carries. Sophomore running back Reid Sanders had nine carries for 31 yards. Kyle Harrison, Ethan Thom, Brandon Barfield, and Jakob Schofield each got a few carries, as well.

With Burkett trucking defenders up the middle, White and Harrison keeping the defense honest with their speed on the outside, sophomore Reid Sanders doing a combination of both, and three or four other backs that are more than capable of making an impact when given the opportunity, defenses aren’t able to hone in on one particular style of play.

“We hope that it presents some problems for the defense,” Vance said. “I think it’s pretty difficult for defenses to say, ‘Okay, we’re just going to stop this one guy.’ When they put everybody in the box to stop the fullback, then they leave the outside open for our other guys that are pretty quick.”

After an exciting first half, with two rushing touchdowns by Burkett, one by White, and a field goal by Shipley, the second half was much less exciting on the offensive end. The remainder of the game was a defensive battle, with only two field goals being scored, both of which were knocked through the uprights by Shipley, resulting in a 30-0 shutout victory for the Panthers.

The Panthers will look to remain undefeated this Friday in Brownwood against the Lions at 7:30 p.m.

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