Panthers rough up Roughnecks, 44-8
By Scott Akanewich
Walker Baty saw the ball sitting on the ground at Waller Stadium and did what any football player is trained to do.
Pick it up and run with it.
So, the massive Liberty Hill defensive end did exactly that and rumbled 10 yards for a touchdown after Kaden McMahan had blocked a punt deep in opposition territory.
However, that was already in the third quarter and only helped put the cherry on top of 44-8 Panthers victory over West Columbia in the opening round of the Class 4A state playoffs on Friday.
Baty’s touchdown simply increased the score to 30-8 midway through the third quarter in a game which was dominated from start to finish by Liberty Hill.
According to Panthers head coach Jeff Walker, Baty’s heads-up play allowed his side to keep piling on the opposition without giving them even the slightest glimmer of hope to get back into the game.
“Walker’s going to be a Division I player next season for a reason,” said Walker, of his 6-foot-5, 260-pound defender, who will line up for the University of Texas-San Antonio next fall.
The tone was set from from the outset of the contest when on West Columbia’s first possession of the night, senior running back Jason Arias broke right up the middle of the Panthers’ defense for a 47-yard gain, only for Jacob Cearley to strip him of the ball at the end of the run, a fumble which was recovered by Michael Heeney, which set up Cearley and the Liberty Hill offense inside their own 10-yard line.
Liberty Hill’s offense was forced to punt after a pair of first downs, but that was when the turnover bug bit the Roughnecks again as the return man fumbled and the Panthers recovered inside the 50.
Only five plays later on a fourth-and-3 from the West Columbia 23, Trey Seward took the ball on a tightrope walk down the right sideline for an apparent Purple-and-Gold score, only for it to be called back for an illegal block and the Panthers were forced to settle for a 33-yard Mason Shipley field goal for a 3-0 lead with only 31.2 seconds left in the first quarter.
Once again, West Columbia failed to hold onto the ball on the first play of the ensuing series, as Baty forced Roughnecks running back Jordan Woodard to fumble, their third turnover in the first quarter alone – and the Panthers had the ball on the West Columbia 10-yard line.
Conversely, senior Nash Robinson had no issues securing the ball, as he scored from 10 yards out on the next play and it was 9-0 after the extra point was botched.
At that point in the proceedings, the Roughnecks had touched the ball only three times and fumbled on all three occasions, something Walker said was critical in his club establishing early dominance.
“The turnovers early were huge for us,” he said. “We felt like they had some momentum and we had to get it back.”
Baty continued to run wild on the next series, combining with Andon Thomas and Aaron Brewer for a sack of Roughnecks quarterback Cameron Ward, which resulted in a three-and-out.
Following a one-yard run by Blake Simpson on the first play of the ensuing possession, Cearley rolled out to his right and lofted a high-arcing pass intended for Seward, who masterfully came back to the underthrown ball and hauled it in for a 29-yard gain.
Simpson then scored on a 15-yard run on the next snap for a 16-0 advantage.
West Columbia answered with a 56-yard scoring run by Jamaurion Woodard and it looked as if the Roughnecks had weathered the early Liberty Hill storm and were right back in the game at 16-8 after a successful two-point conversion.
However, those were the only points West Columbia could muster for the duration, as it turns out the Panthers were only just beginning to rain down on them in buckets.
Despite the scoreline sitting at the same eight-point difference at the half, the Panthers’ defense forced another three-and-out to begin the third quarter, followed by a Seward 25-yard scoring sprint for a 23-8 lead with 8:36 left in the period and one could sense the game was getting away from the Roughnecks.
In fact, right after Baty’s fumble recovery-touchdown on West Columbia’s next series made the score 30-8, senior Bryce Rampy forced yet another Roughnecks fumble on the ensuing kick return, which was again capitalized on by an opportunistic Liberty Hill offense as Simpson broke free for a 20-yard touchdown run and a 37-8 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Robinson added a 48-yard touchdown run with 10:48 left in the game and after that, all the Panthers offense needed to do was eat up the rest of the clock.
But, not before Baty blew up the West Columbia backfield one final time on the evening, teaming up with Preston Shephard for another sack, punctuating an outstanding individual performance.
Baty said the size of the West Columbia offense helped him take his game to another level and another motivating factor was he wasn’t yet ready for his Panthers’ career to end..
“I think that really brought the physicality out of me,” he said. “I love this team as much as I love my family.”
In all, Baty collected three sacks, a forced fumble, a pass defended at the line and of course, the blocked punt return for a touchdown.
Robinson led the Panthers with 94 yards on nine carries and a pair of touchdowns, while Seward ran 15 times for 76 yards and one touchdown and Simpson added 59 yards on 13 attempts and a pair of scoring runs.
Despite the dominant fashion of his squad’s victory, Walker said the Panthers still haven’t hit the ceiling yet as far as what they’re capable of.
“I think everyone on our team thinks we still have better days ahead,” he said. “We still need to keep getting better.”
Walker credited the ability of his players to hold the line despite the turmoil this season has provided.
“I’m just so proud of each and every one of them,” he said. “They very easily could’ve thrown in the towel and made excuses, but I’ve never heard any of that from even one of them.”
Liberty Hill (5-5) will next face La Feria (11-0), who defeated La Vernia, 63-42 on Friday, with the date and site yet to be determined.
Walker said he hopes his players are able now to completely put the Panthers’ 4-5 regular season behind them as they move forward.
“Hopefully, they’ve forgotten about it now,” he said. “Right now, we’re 1-0 and we need to go 1-0 again next week.”