Panthers pounce on Eagles in opener, 44-25
By Scott Akanewich
Welcome to Class 5A.
Or, at least that’s probably what many in attendance were thinking at the outset of proceedings on Friday night at Panther Stadium, as the home side found itself behind after only 17 seconds had elapsed off the game clock in the season-opener against Killeen Ellison.
After the Panthers had won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, the Eagles quickly struck for a 59-yard scoring pass on the game’s first play from scrimmage for a 6-0 lead after the extra point was missed.
Approximately eight-and-a-half minutes later, the visitors added another six points on an 81-yard touchdown run and another missed conversion for a 12-0 advantage.
However, after senior Trey Seward finally put the Purple-and-Gold on the board with 1:18 left in the opening period, the Panthers were able to right the ship and cruise to a 44-25 victory over their Class 6A opponents.
According to Liberty Hill head coach Jeff Walker, his club may just have been a bit starstruck as the season finally began after both a delayed start and much anticipation.
“We settled down and started playing,” said Walker. “Our eyes were a little big at the beginning.”
Indeed, the score was 18-6 in favor of Ellison as the first quarter ended – but those would be the last points the Eagles would score in the contest until only 25 seconds remained in the game.
What transpired in between was quite remarkable as the Panthers scored 38 unanswered points in between Ellison’s third and fourth scores of the night, as three Liberty Hill players went over 100 yards in rushing, led by Seward’s 196 on 21 carries to go with three touchdowns.
After Seward had scored his second touchdown of the night on a 14-yard run with 10:38 left in the second stanza and successfully run in a two-point conversion to close the gap to 18-14, the Panthers’ defense began to growl.
Liberty Hill forced a three-and-out on Ellison after Carter Hudson and Austin Bourgeois double-teamed an Eagles receiver to break up a pass on 3rd-and-11 from the Ellison 45-yard-line, forcing a punt.
Once the Panthers took over again on offense at their own 25, Seward and fellow senior Blake Simpson took turns hammering the Ellison defense until the home side faced a third-down play near the Eagles’ red zone.
Senior quarterback Charlie Calabretta then dropped back into the pocket and found a wide-open Seward for a 35-yard scoring pass to take a 21-18 lead with only 1:17 left until halftime, which was where the score sat at the midway interval.
Walker took a matter-of-fact approach to his team’s potency through the air.
“It was something that was there all night because of how they were playing us and opened up the passing game,” he said. “But, I’m hard-headed – we need to work more on our blocking.”
As the Liberty Hill offense gained traction, the defense followed suit, smothering Ellison’s attack time and again after allowing the trio of long scores earlier in the contest.
Andon Thomas, Luke Huddleston and Canyon Schirpik were among the chief playmakers for the Panthers’ defense on the evening, which culminated with the latter recovering a fumble after Liberty Hill has pushed the Eagles back against their own goal line late in the fourth quarter to help close the deal.
Perhaps the Panthers’ ferociousness on the evening was best illustrated by senior Eric De La Cruz’s bruising 18-yard gain in the third quarter when he carried a gang of Eagles’ tacklers the final 10 yards before finally being brought down inside the Ellison 10-yard line, which set up his own one-yard scoring rumble two plays later for a 28-18 lead.
After the Panthers’ defense had once again backed up the Eagles to the point where the visitors were forced to punt from their own end zone, a bad snap caused a safety before De La Cruz powered another score home from a yard out and Simpson scored the final Liberty Hill points of the night on an 11-yard touchdown run with 5:20 remaining to make it a 44-18 game.
Ellison’s last minute touchdown only made the score somewhat more respectable, but it was the Panthers who proudly walked off the field with the victory.
Simpson ran 18 times for 112 yards and a touchdown, while De La Cruz had 16 carries for 107 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
In addition, freshman Noah Long broke off a 20-yard run in the fourth quarter in his varsity debut.
Liberty Hill racked up 470 yards of total offense in the game, with 435 on the ground, picking up in its new Class 5A home right where it left off in Class 4A.
However, Walker was only somewhat impressed by his team’s performance, he said.
“We had some kids do what we expect them to do,” said Walker. “But, Ellison’s defense wasn’t very good – it was really them more than it was us. Our effort was good, but we really need to work more on our technique and the overall physicality of our game.”
Liberty Hill (1-0) will next face a tough road contest against another Class 6A side in Del Valle on Oct. 2 – a contest Walker believes will reveal much more about his own squad, he said.
“I think we’ll know a lot more about us after that game,” said Walker. “We can’t start bad like we did tonight against good teams.”