Panthers roll over Ricebirds
By Scott Akanewich
Make no mistake.
Over the years, it’s been Liberty Hill’s offense which has garnered the headlines and attention, as it’s famed Slot-T has carved up opposing defenses with the precision of a surgeon.
But, this year, the defense has stood strongest over the course of the Panthers’ current five-game winning streak, the latest of which was a 24-6 fourth-round playoff victory against El Campo on Friday.
Blake Simpson led Liberty Hill with 161 yards on 11 carries, while Trey Seward added 136 yards on 10 attempts and Nash Robinsion ran for 44 yards on 10 carries and a pair of touchdowns, but it was the Purple-and-Gold defense which was dominant throughout in limiting the Ricebirds to only a single score on the evening.
In fact, the Liberty Hill defense has now allowed only a combined 21 points in the Panthers’ three playoff victories, which pleased head coach Jeff Walker.
“Our defense played lights out again this week,” he said. “We’ve played pretty well against the run all season.”
However, the Panthers didn’t exactly get off on the right foot, as Seward fumbled on Liberty Hill’s opening possession.
But, no worries as the defense picked up their counterparts on the other side of the ball by forcing El Campo to turn it over on downs after a failed fourth-down attempt.
Seward then made up for his blunder the very next time he touched the ball, ripping off a 78-yard scoring run for a 7-0 Liberty Hill lead, which was soon followed by a five-yard Nash Robinson rumble and a 14-0 advantage.
Following a Preston Shephard interception, Mason Shipley booted a 47-yard field goal, increasing the lead to 17-0, which was where proceedings stood at the half.
Once again, the Panthers’ defense set the tone to begin the third quarter, forcing the Ricebirds to punt after a three-and-out and after they had once again stopped El Campo cold on its next series, Simpson ran 37 yards all the way to the 2-yard line, where Robinson punched it in for the Panthers’ final points of the game and a 24-0 lead at the end of the third.
Only a late El Campo touchdown prevented a shutout.
According to senior safety Drake Oberpriller, the fact he and his teammates continue to progress through the playoffs on the heels of difficult regular season is a source of satisfaction.
“We just like the fact we keep proving everybody wrong,” said Oberpriller. “We kept hearing people talk about us.”
In addition, Oberpriller attributed the recent run to the chemistry which continues to develop after younger players were integrated into the Panthers’ defense.
“I think the connection between all the guys has been really good,” he said. “We had to get the confidence of our sophomores up.”
Walker said he’s not necessarily surprised about the run his club is currently on, but it still might’ve been difficult to see everything unfolding how it has.
“If you asked me back in Week 9, I probably wouldn’t have made this prediction,” he said. “But, I knew we were capable of it.”
The resolve his players have shown has been the hallmark, he said.
“We just have tough kids who are very resilient,” said Walker. “All week, we practiced with Thanksgiving and everything when school was out and nobody complained – we weren’t going to give up.”
Liberty Hill (7-5) will next face the winner of Saturday’s Lampasas-Needville game, with the site and date to be determined.
Despite the recent surge in success for his squad, Walker doesn’t take any extra gratification in the fact the Panthers were 2-5 before the current stretch began – he’s just glad they’re back where they belong – in winning ways.
“You never like to lose and sure, we’d rather be 12-0 than 7-5, but I’m happy we got it turned around because our players kept fighting and playing and had the ability to overcome a lot,” he said. “As I’ve always said, teams to remember play in December.”