By KEITH SPARKS
The Panthers are in the midst of a unique week, preparing for their only Thursday night football game of the season against the Austin Anderson Trojans.
According to Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker, Austin ISD requires its schools to play a Thursday night game and a Saturday night game each season to accommodate those that have to share a stadium, as Anderson does at House Park with Austin High, Lanier and McCallum.
“That’s 100 percent AISD for you,” Walker said. “Coach Vance told me, he said last year, ‘Hey, we’re going to Calhoun, so we can’t play on Thursday.’ When Coach Vance left, I didn’t know anything about it. It wasn’t supposed to be a Thursday night, but I don’t think Coach Rhoads at Anderson has much say. When AISD schedules, they look at all the schedules, who they’re playing, and tell them when they can play their games. I think it’s more an AISD athletic deal, where they only have so many stadiums.”
This will be Walker’s very first Thursday night game as a coach, and he admits it will be a little bit different. As for this week’s practice, the Panthers will simply move each practice up a day, treating Monday like Tuesday and so forth. On Wednesday, they’ll have to do a little bit more than a walkthrough, which is what they typically do the day before a game.
Walker expects to have last year’s breakout running back Reid Sanders back from a hamstring injury for Thursday’s game, but doesn’t expect him to be at 100 percent. He doesn’t expect leading rusher Hunter Oncken to play after struggling with headaches last week, so starting linebacker and backup fullback Ethan Thom will likely take his place in the backfield, but those won’t be the only changes in the backfield.
“We’re going to move a few of our backs around and try something else,” Walker said. “I know people think that because we’ve been putting up points, they think we’ve been doing okay, but we haven’t been running the offense like I like it to be run. Our running backs, when they have the ball, they do pretty good, but when they don’t have the ball, they struggle with blocking and carrying out fakes. In this offense, you’ve got to carry out your fakes, so we’re going to move some people around and give some kids that have come back a chance to play. We need to find those best 11 on offense and the best 11 on defense, and the only way I know how to do that is throw some of these kids in the fire. This week, we may have a whole new backfield, trying to find out who really wants to get this done.”
The Panthers have long prided themselves on being able to insert a number of players into any given position while remaining competitive. So far this season, they’ve had to do just that.
“A lot of places, you wouldn’t be able to do this,” Walker said regarding their performance despite the injuries. “If I had these injuries at Rogers, I’d be over by now. We’re hanging in with these injuries, but we need to get healthy. Every time I turn around, somebody’s got a concussion or somebody’s torn their ACL, so the bottom line is we’ve just got to get healthy and have our best kids playing.”
Anderson is returning nine players from last year’s defense, giving them an advantage on that side of the ball that most teams don’t have. According to Walker, the Trojans have a 6’5” 240-pound defensive lineman and a 6’3” 225 defensive end, both of which are menacing presences on the field.
“They’re big, and their secondary is probably the best we’ve seen as far as running to the ball and making tackles,” Walker said. “They’re real athletic on defense. They’ve given up a lot of points, but they’ve played some pretty potent teams.”
Although the Trojans have struggled thus far, their offense has scored at a high clip, aside from their goose egg against a tough Smithson Valley opponent. In the other three games they’ve played, they’ve scored 28, 20, and 34.
“Offensively, they’re really dangerous,” Walker said. “They have a really good running back in 21, a quarterback who can throw it, and three good receivers who are tall and lanky and can run and catch it. They’re similar to Brownwood, offensively. I don’t think they’re quite as potent as Brownwood. At least, I hope they’re not, but they’re putting up points.”
Despite the fact that the Panthers will have played two larger-conference schools in a row after facing 5A Calhoun and 6A Anderson, Walker doesn’t anticipate the matchups paying huge dividends down the road, considering the talent level in their own district at the 4A level.
“We haven’t played anybody that’s as good as La Vega or China Spring,” he said. “Some of the opponents in our district are playing some pretty bad people right now. I think our pre-district schedule will help us get prepared, but I don’t know how much. I don’t think Port Lavaca’s going to win many more games, to be honest with you, and I don’t know how many games Anderson will win.”
The Trojans are 0-4 so far this season, losing to McCallum by a final score of 48-28, LBJ 48-20, Smithson Valley 56-0, and Austin High 61-34. McCallum and Smithson Valley are both undefeated, while LBJ has lost one game and Austin High has lost two. Despite their less-than-stellar record, Walker is making sure his players don’t underestimate the Trojans.
“They’re not anything to laugh about,” Walker said. “We can’t overlook them. I know it’s been, ‘Ah, they’re a bad 6A,’ but the coaching staff, we know better. If we don’t show up like we did Calhoun, we’ll get beat again. It’ll be a challenge.”
This week’s game against the Trojans will take place on Thursday, Sept. 28, at House Park in Austin at 7:30 p.m., as the Panthers look to bounce back from last week’s loss and improve upon their 2-1 record.