Panthers punch ticket to State Championship by ending Carthage’s 40-game win streak

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By Keith Sparks

CYPRESS — In the midst of a 40-game win streak, Carthage was considered the favorite by most entering Friday night’s matchup between the Bulldogs and the Panthers. On a cold, windy night, however, Liberty Hill’s running game had the advantage. In a close game that never reached a deficit of more than 12 points, the Panthers came out victorious with a 44-41 State Semifinal victory over the back-to-back State Champions.

Carthage established an aggressive play style early on, going for it on fourth and 3 in their own territory with 10:17 left in the first quarter. The decision paid off as quarterback Gunner Capps hit receiver Kelvontay Dixon for a 56-yard touchdown reception. The extra point was missed, and Carthage had an early 6-0 lead.

After a Panther punt and a turnover on downs for the Bulldogs, Liberty Hill running back Blake Simpson opened up the scoring for the Panthers with a 32-yard touchdown run, giving Liberty Hill a 7-6 lead late in the first quarter.

Carthage looked poised to retake the lead with a huge run into enemy territory, but a hold brought them back to the 45-yard line, and Brady Brewer broke up another fourth-down conversion attempt to give Liberty Hill the ball and a chance to add on to their lead. Sure enough, they did by way of a 46-yard run by Kyle Harrison on fourth and 1 to take a 14-6 lead.

The Panther defense played lights out on the following drive, but a tricky running back punt by Carthage forced Liberty Hill into a late hit, giving Carthage an automatic first down, which they capitalized on by driving all the way down the field for a 1-yard touchdown run by Mason Courtney to reduce the lead to 14-12 after a two-point conversion was no good.

The Panthers would then turn the ball over on downs, giving Carthage an opportunity to take the lead before halftime. The Bulldogs’ offense made its way down the field before fumbling the snap near midfield, which Liberty Hill linebacker Brenden Ketchem recovered.

Solid clock management and play calling by the Panther coaching staff allowed Matthew Shipley to kick a 27-yard field goal and increase the Panther lead to 17-12 at halftime.

Wasting no time, the Panthers scored quickly in the third quarter, allowing quarterback Jacob Cearley to show off his speed with a read option that went for 40 yards and got the offense deep in enemy territory. Cearley finished it off with a 1-yard quarterback sneak to give Liberty Hill a 24-12 lead early in the third quarter.

The Bulldogs refused to go away, though, scoring even quicker than the Panthers did on their first drive. A huge gain on a completion from Capps to Kaden Holcomb got them into the red zone, followed by a 2-yard touchdown run by Rayvon Ingram to reduce the Panther lead to 24-19.

After a Panther punt and a huge defensive stop to force a Carthage turnover on downs, Liberty Hill fullback Kristian Taggart got in on the scoring action from 52 yards out to take a 30-19 lead with 1:32 left in the third quarter.

Liberty Hill’s defense was tested throughout the game, particularly in the secondary, but they continued to hold strong in the second half. Unfortunately, two huge defensive holding penalties early in the fourth quarter kept Carthage alive and Capps took advantage, finding receiver Kel Williams in the end zone from 21 yards out and completing the two-point conversion to bring the score to 30-27 in favor of the Panthers.

Blake Simpson, who stepped in at running back for the injured Shane Gonzalez, had a huge fourth quarter full of highlights, arguably the best of which was a 16-yard touchdown run with just under 10 minutes remaining. He was initially stopped short of the goal line, but a team of Panthers essentially shoved him into the end zone to take a 37-27 lead.

With Carthage moving toward the end zone efficiently, defensive back Brady Brewer made arguably the biggest defensive play of the game with an interception on a deep pass that would have otherwise been a touchdown.

Hoping to run as much clock as possible, the Panthers stayed with the run game, but a great defensive play by Carthage forced a fumble by cleanly stripping Simpson of the ball.

Shortly thereafter, Williams caught his second touchdown of the game from eight yards out, and the Panthers once again had just a three-point lead at 37-34.

The offense remained calm, though, switching back and forth between a quarterback draw here, a fullback run up the middle there, causing confusion on the other side of the ball.

One of the most underrated plays of the game was Cearley’s ability to stay inbounds on second and 9, getting close to the first down marker and sliding to keep the clock running, forcing Carthage to take a timeout.

Harrison came through in the clutch once again for Liberty Hill, forcing Carthage to take their final timeout with a first down run, then scoring from 19 yards out almost immediately afterward with just over a minute to play to give the Panthers a 44-34 lead with 2:04 left in the game.

Carthage scored from 8 yards out with under a minute to play, which forced them into an onside kick situation. The onside kick was nearly perfect, but a Panther returner made a great play to catch it in mid air, effectively ending the game at 44-41.

Head Coach Jeff Walker acted completely unsurprised after the game, explaining that his team simply met their expectations as they have almost all season. He also ended with a not-so-subtle shot at the officials, who threw a late “illegal participation” flag that the Panthers were fortunately able to overcome.

“It’s what we expected. That’s what we expect,” Walker said. “We come in every game and do what we do. We don’t worry about the opponent. Obviously, everybody else knew who were playing, but we just did what we’re capable of doing. We did shoot ourselves in the foot a couple times, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of a game with penalties like that, but I’m just happy we were able to pull it out, because I felt like we weren’t just playing Carthage tonight.”

The Panthers are now headed to the State Championship for the first time since 2007, where they’ll face Waco La Vega, the team that ended the Panthers’ playoff run last season and has beaten them the last four times they’ve matched up.

The Conference 4A Division I State Championship will take place at 3:00 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

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