Panthers, Seward tame Lions, 66-7
By Scott Akanewich
Last week, Liberty Hill head football coach Jeff Walker stood in the cold night air outside a boisterous locker room in Waller after his squad had just defeated West Columbia by a score of 44-8 in the Panthers’ playoff opener and offered this assessment of his team.
“I still think we can play a lot better,” said Walker.
Guess he was right.
At the moment, it seems as if there is absolutely nothing the Panthers can’t do on a football field.
Witness Friday’s 66-7 demolition of previously unbeaten La Feria in a Class 4A state playoff contest as an example.
From the outset, everything Liberty Hill did turned to gold, while whatever the Lions did – not exactly.
Entering the game, Walker knew he was going to have to rely on his offense keeping its high-powered counterparts across the field on the sidelines and one way to do exactly that was to grind out long drives in trademark Slot-T style.
Which is precisely what the Panthers did.
Liberty Hill opened the game with a methodical, seven, play, 55-yard drive consisting of bruising runs between the tackles by Blake Simpson and Nash Robinson, which was punctuated by an eight-yard scoring rumble by Simpson after the big back was sprung into the end zone with a superb block by Luke Huddleston for a 7-0 advantage.
Curiously enough, Trey Seward had nary a carry on the opening drive, but all that changed after the Panthers’ defense forced a three-and-out on the Lions’ first series, which included a triple-team sack of La Feria quarterback Dorian Hernandez by the triumvirate of Preston Shephard, Walker Baty and Austin Knox, who was seeing his first action back in the lineup since being sidelined by a broken collarbone on Sept. 19.
After the Panthers had taken over after being pinned by a punt at their own four-yard line, Seward wasted no time in getting his name on the stat sheet.
Seward took a handoff from quarterback Jacob Cearley and raced 96 yards for a touchdown on a play during which he outsprinted the entire La Feria defense on the way to a quick 14-0 Liberty Hill lead.
One play, 96 yards.
Not exactly a textbook Panthers scoring drive, but no matter.
There were plenty of those to be had on the evening as the Slot-T was only getting warmed up, while the Lions were already beginning to wonder what had hit them so early on.
After another three-and-out on the Lions’ second possession — and another sack by Baty – the offense went back to work, resulting in a 29-yard field goal by Matthew Shipley, which ended a six-play, 32-yard drive and a 17-0 lead.
After La Feria had converted a critical 24-yard pass from Hernandez on 4th-and-4, the Lions signal-caller again tried his luck down the field.
However, junior Preston Shephard stepped in front of the La Feria receiver, intercepted the pass at the Panthers’ 10-yard line and returned it 90 yards for a 24-0 lead, which was how the first quarter ended, as the shell-shocked 11-0 Lions were at a complete loss.
Hernandez had entered the game having accounted for 41 of La Feria’s touchdowns this season – 25 scoring passes and 16 rushing touchdowns – but simply couldn’t get anything going on a night when the Purple-and-Gold defense seemed to be everywhere all at once.
But, that didn’t stop him from trying.
Following back-to-back incompletions on the Lions’ next series, Hernandez once again dropped back into the pocket and looked downfield only to be sacked by Knox after failing to find an open man.
After Robinson had capitalized with a 10-yard scoring run to increase the lead to 31-0, the Panthers picked off Hernandez again as Carter Hudson hauled in a wayward pass, giving the offense the ball at its own 20.
Eight plays and 80 yards later, it was 38-0 after Seward scored his second touchdown of the game from 22 yards out.
What happened next was something Baty had been waiting a very long time for.
On 1st-and-goal with the ball on the La Feria 8-yard line, Cearley rolled out to his right and found a well-covered Baty in the back corner of the end zone, only for the mammoth senior to out-jump and out-muscle the Lions’ defender for an eight-yard touchdown reception.
Walker said Baty had been chomping at the bit to contribute offensively.
“We’ve been working on it in practice and Walker’s been begging us to do it,” he said. “He can do some good things offensively.”
In fact, not only was Baty’s presence on offense a wrinkle, but Cearley also completed passes on the drive to Nathaniel Hibrich and Andrew Hunter for 18 and nine yards, respectively.
If the La Feria defense had already been confused by the Panthers’ intricate, precise blocking schemes to that point in the game, now they we completely flabbergasted.
Baty’s catch came with zeroes on the clock and a 45-0 halftime lead.
Seward and Robinson scored from 32 and three yards out in the third, respectively, before Seward put the Panthers’ cherry on top with a 61-yard touchdown run in the fourth.
Only a late Lions’ score prevented the Liberty Hill defense from posting a shutout.
Seward rushed for 293 yards on 15 carries, with four touchdowns and credited the quick start he and his teammates had with a renewed intensity.
“We got off the bus with momentum,” said Seward. “I think we had a lot of focus.”
Simpson piled up 82 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown, while Robinson added 36 yards on eight attempts and a pair of scores.
But, perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the victory was a resurgent Panthers defense which for the second straight week, shut down a high-powered attack.
Going back to a 63-0 home win against Taylor on Nov. 1 — which began the Panthers’ current four-game winning streak — the Liberty Hill defense has allowed on 22 points in four games.
“Our defense has been lights out,” said Walker. “We came out and played good football like we needed to.”
Speaking of which, Walker praised Shephard’s continued spirited play, which included the long interception return for a score.
“No doubt, Preston played that well,” he said. “He might only be 150 pounds, but he plays extremely hard and doesn’t want to let his teammates down.”
Liberty Hill (6-5) will next face El Campo in a third-round game, with the date and site to be determined.
But, that’s next week.
Once again, like the previous week again outside a celebratory locker room on a chilly night, Walker was still certain his team had not yet maxed out what they’re capable of.
“We’re never satisfied,” he said. “Our players know we expect perfection, so we just work every day to achieve our goals.”