Panthers play up well, beat Del Valle, 44-27

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By SCOTT AKANEWICH
Sports Editor

For the second week running of the new season, Liberty Hill’s football squad got off to slow start, but much like the previous, the Panthers once again rebounded and prevailed in a road contest over Class 6A Del Valle by a score of 44-27 on Friday night.

The opener seven days earlier had followed a similar script to the sequel, in that after being stunned early, the visitors gained control of the contest in the same fashion as they had against another Class 6A club in Killeen Ellison at home before cruising to a 44-25 victory.

However, Liberty Hill head coach Jeff Walker was by no means satisfied with his team’s performance.

“I’m disappointed with how we played,” he said. “We haven’t shown anyone we can play football.”

After the Cardinals had scored the first nine points of the evening on a 32-yard field goal and a 12-yard touchdown pass with a blocked extra point which was returned for a safety by the Panthers’ Preston Shepherd, it was the home side who held an early 9-2 advantage with 3:40 left in the opening quarter.

But, on the ensuing kickoff, it was freshman Noah Long who returned the kick 75 yards all the way down to the Del Valle 13-yard line.

After Trey Seward, Eric De La Cruz and Blake Simpson took turns running the ball to no avail, senior quarterback Charlie Calabretta once again utilized the Panthers’ newfound passing game on a 3rd-and-9 from the 11, when he found Simpson open for his second scoring strike of the season and after an Ethan Minix extra point, the game was even at 9-9 entering the second quarter.

According to Walker, slow starts continue to plague the Panthers – something which he’s befuddled by.

“We started out sluggish again and I don’t know why,” said Walker.
But, after the visitors had tied the score, it was the defense who seemed inspired, forcing the Cardinals into a pair three-and-outs on their next two possessions.

After the offense had driven to the Del Valle 1-yard-line, they were stopped on 4th-and-goal by the Cardinals’ defense and turned the ball over on downs without capitalizing on the opportunity.

Liberty Hill’s defense continued to cause problems for the Del Valle offense on the next possession and after Andon Thomas had a big stop on a third-down play, Aaron Brewer broke in and partially blocked a Del Valle punt, causing the ball to shoot straight up in the air before landing and providing the Panthers the ball at their own 37-yard-line.

Six plays later, Simpson rumbled in from 18 yards out, as the Panthers took the lead at 16-9 with only 44 seconds until halftime.

But, lightning struck again for the Purple-and-Gold 40 seconds later, as the defense stepped up again, as junior Lloyd Johnson brought the Cardinals’ quarterback down with a coverage sack, which was followed by an interception by Kaden McMahan, which he returned 30 yards for a score right before the first half ran out for a 22-9 Liberty Hill lead at the break.

After an attempted onside kick by Del Valle to open the second half failed, Simpson scored his third touchdown of the contest on a 15-yard run before Seward ran in a two-point conversion and it was 30-9 in favor of the visitors.

The Cardinals quickly answered with a 45-yard scoring pass, closing the deficit to 30-15, but then Simpson added his fourth score with a seven-yard run and it was 37-15 entering the fourth quarter.

Del Valle scored on a 72-yard pass to make it a 37-21 game, then De La Cruz ran one in from nine yards out before the Cardinals closed out the scoring with a 13-yard touchdown pass with only 30 seconds left in the game.

Walker was upset with the fact his team allowed the late score and also fumbled the ball away on four separate occasions.

“As a head coach, it’s really frustrating,” he said. “Giving up a touchdown like that with 30 seconds left and turning the ball over four times – I don’t know many teams you’re going to beat when you do that.”
Fortunatelyy for Walker and the Panthers, Del Valle was such a team, but despite his squad picking up a pair of victories in as many games to start the season, he knows his club could pay for further such transgressions down the road.

“It’s not a lack of effort on the players’ part,” said Walker. “But, there is a lack of confidence, swagger and focus.”

Walker then pointed the finger squarely at himself.

“We have great kids, but not a great coach right now,” he said. “I just didn’t get it done.”

In order for his team to compete at the level he knows they can, Walker knows it must begin with himself, he said.

“We’re better than this, but it starts at the top and I have to fix it,” said Walker. “We need to start playing a little closer to our potential. Luckily, we’re 2-0.”

Walker added the subpar performance by his team could be traced back to what happened during the week.

“We didn’t practice too well all week – we were sloppy,” he said.
Liberty Hill (2-0) will next return home to host the district-opener against Crockett on Oct. 9, but despite the Cougars losing their opener to Johnson, 56-8 and the fact they’re coming off a 2-8 season last year, Walker is certainly taking nothing for granted as he and his team move forward, he said.

“We never get ahead of ourselves,” said Walker. “Also, I’m not the kind of guy to overlook anybody.”

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