Panthers stopped short on goal line

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By Scott Akanewich
Sports Editor

Liberty Hill’s home game against Manor on Friday night wasn’t decided until the final seconds when the Panthers were stopped just short of the goal line while driving for a game-winning touchdown in a 33-28 loss and neither Jacob Cearley nor Drake Oberpriller were around to see it.
Senior quarterback Cearley missed the entire second half of the game with an injury which landed him in a local hospital, while Oberpriller had already been banished to the locker room after being ejected for back-to-back unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the fourth quarter.
But, their absence was only part of the picture which was painted at Panther Stadium, as the home team lost consecutive games for the first time since 2012.
However, coming off a 42-14 home defeat to Hutto last week, things began brightly enough for the Purple-and-Gold when Brady Brewer forced a fumble on the opening kickoff and the Panthers recovered.
Only two plays later, Blake Simpson scored on a 34-yard run for a quick 7-0 Liberty Hill lead with less than a minute gone in the opening quarter.
Manor’s Che Nwabuko returned the ensuing kick into Panthers territory, but the visitors were stopped short after senior Walker Baty threw Mustangs ballcarriers for losses on back-to-back plays.
The contest remained a sloppy affair as Simpson fumbled on consecutive plays, recovering the first and losing the second, then shortly after, Cearley lost the ball in his own backfield and pounced on it, but not before a 16-yard loss on the play.
Finally, the Mustangs answered the early strike, as linebacker James McDonald scooped up another Panthers fumble and returned it 42 yards to level the score at 7-7 with 6:57 left in the first period.
The second stanza saw Manor take a 13-7 lead on a 58-yard scoring pass from backup quarterback Nate Jackson to rangy, 6-foot-4 wideout Carl Chester followed by a blocked extra point near the midway point of the quarter after starter Matthew Hill was lost to an injury early on.
However, Liberty Hill reclaimed the lead in unfamiliar fashion – through the air, as Cearley hit sophomore Kaden McMahan with a rare 16-yard touchdown pass with 3:34 left in the half to regain the lead at 14-13.
But, Manor managed to restore its advantage by converting a 3rd-and 13 deep in Panthers’ territory, then taking advantage of a roughing-the-passer call against Andon Thomas, resulting in Chester’s second score of the half, this one an eight-yard catch from Jackson and it was 20-14 at the half in favor of the Mustangs.
The second half was when proceedings began to unravel as both sides continued to commit turnovers and take untimely penalties.
Charlie Calabretta replaced the injured Cearley under center after Trey Seward had run back the opening kickoff 35 yards to give the Panthers good field position at their w 45-yard line and the junior quarterback guided the Liberty Hill offense on its most impressive scoring drive of the evening, which included runs of 39 and 18 yards by Seward and Simpson, respectively and ending with the latter’s second rushing touchdown of the game from 11 yards out for a 21-20 Panthers lead.
But, the Mustangs’ Tahj Brooks, who is on his way to Texas Tech next season, ran one in from 40 yards to give Manor a 27-21 lead, which was where the score stood entering the final quarter.
However, only 10 seconds into the fourth, Seward finished off a seven-play, 56-yard drive with a 27-yard scoring run to once again swing the scoreboard back in the home team’s favor at 28-27.
But, just as they had all night, the Mustangs bounced right back with an eight-play, 41-yard drive of their own, culminating in a Brooks rumble from one yard out, which provided the final margin at 33-28.
Despite there being no more scoring the rest of the way, there was still plenty of action.
Liberty Hill took over with one final chance to win the game and after Calabretta’s pass for Seward fell incomplete on a 3rd-and-9 from their own 46-yard line, it seemed as if the curtain had fallen on the home team’s hopes.
But, a roughing-the-passer call on Manor’s McDonald provided a respite for the Panthers, which they took advantage of by continuing to move the ball toward the end zone and victory.
Finally, it came down to 4th-and-goal at the Mustangs’ 3-yard line, with Calbretta running a fake up the middle, then rolling out to his right before lofting a pass which fell just short of its intended target at the goal line.
All Manor had to do was run out the last few seconds after getting the ball on downs in the shadow of their own goal post.
As for his decision to abandon the running game on the final play, Liberty Hill head coach Jeff Walker took the blame squarely on his own shoulders.
“We thought maybe we could get a cheap one because they were stacked in the middle for the run,” he said. “If I knew how to call plays, we would’ve won the game.”
Simpson led the Liberty Hill offense with 160 yards on 19 carries, while Seward carried 20 times for 100 yards and Nash Robinson contributed 49 yards on 11 carries.
Despite the defeat, Walker was pleased with the tenacity his team showed.
“I thought we played a lot harder this week with more fight,” said Walker. “We did a better job, now we have to build on it.”
As for the continued miscues of his club, Walker knows his squad isn’t equipped to be able to contend with them and still have success.
“We’re not good enough to get away with committing penalties,” he said. “It just seemed for a while there, it was just penalty after penalty and even the best teams can’t do that. We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot with penalties. We’re not a 1st-and-20 offense.”
Walker credited the Mustangs’ talent level, but thought his team deserved better.
“No doubt, they have athletes, but I think we were the better team,” he said. “But, the bottom line is we want to have more points on the board than the other team.”
Liberty Hill dropped to 1-2 on the season with the defeat and now faces a quick turnaround before facing Pflugerville Connolly in their final non-district game on Thursday.
Walker recognized the situation his squad is currently faced with, but continues to remain optimistic.
“What we’re in right now is definitely a new experience for the program,” he said. “But, I’m proud of our kids and I know we’ll keep seeing a better team every week.”
The Panthers’ next home game isn’t until Oct. 11 when they host Fredericksburg and Walker is hoping to finally deliver a victory to the faithful, he said.
“Our fans have been a big part of our games the past two weeks,” said Walker. “They’ve been great crowds and I hope we can get them a win.”

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