Panthers take on El Campo tonight
By Scott Akanewich
Much is made of common opponents when forecasting football.
So, the fact Liberty Hill defeated West Columbia, 44-8 in the opening round of the Class 4A state playoffs, while this week’s third-round opposition, El Campo, was defeated by the Roughnecks earlier this season by a score of 17-9 should bode well for the Panthers, right?
Not so fast, said Liberty Hill head coach Jeff Walker.
“They’re a really good football team,” he said, of the side the Panthers will face at Bastrop Memorial Stadium on Nov. 28 at 7:30 p.m. “With three really good running backs.”
Sounds as if Walker is talking about his own stable of backfield runners.
The Panthers’ prolific Slot-T offense looked much like last season’s version against the Lions, piling up 496 yards on the ground, as eight different Liberty Hill players carried the ball, not the least of which was junior Trey Seward, who ran wild for 297 yards on 17 attempts and a pair of touchdown, including a spectacular 96-yard sprint with the Panthers backed up on their own 4-yard line early in the game when the outcome was still in doubt.
On top of all that, senior quarterback Jacob Cearley lit up the San Antonio night sky at Heroes Stadium, completing 4-of-5 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown.
Walker attributed the Panthers’ suddenly potent air attack to the point of the season they find themselves in.
“I think when you get to the playoffs, you have to be a bit more aggressive with your play-calling,” he said. “So, we add in a few wrinkles, but nothing crazy.”
However, Walker added sometimes at this stage, caution must be thrown to the wind with the stakes so high.
“When you get to this point, you’ve got nothing to lose because if you don’t win, there’s no next week,” he said. “So, you have to make adjustments based on how they’re playing you.”
El Campo has a three-headed backfield monster of its own, comprised of sophomore Johntre Davis, freshman Reuben Owens and junior Charles Shorter, which has certainly gotten Walker’s attention, he said.
“They’re primarily a run team – they want to run the ball,” said Walker. “Probably about 80-20 run-pass.”
The Riceowls boast a 10-2 record on the current campaign, including a 49-13 win last week against Jones, which followed victory against another common opponent in Fredericksburg, who the Panthers lost to, 35-21 on Oct. 11.
But the Panthers are a vastly different team now compared to the one which lost at home to the Battlin’ Billies, thanks to the arrival on the scene of some new players who have been making an impact since entering the lineup, not the least of which has been sophomore Carter Hudson, who got his first varsity start against La Feria and shined with an interception, a pair of tackles and a pass defended, said Walker.
“Carter definitely bowed up and played an outstanding game,” he said. “He didn’t even know he was starting until he got on the bus, so he was thrown to the wolves, but he reacted, didn’t back down, wasn’t worried about the Friday night lights and had a big night – he exceeded our expectations.”
The occasion also marked another solid effort by the Liberty Hill offensive line, who continued to open gaping holes in the bigger, stronger La Feria defense, with senior center Ryley Rosenbusch flanked by Jed Lapuszynski, Keegan Klaus-Ryan, Luke Huddleston and Blake Wilson, as the group gains more momentum with every game of experience they get in further developing the cohesion which was missing earlier in the season.
Seward has now rushed for 1,735 yards on 168 carries for the season, a hefty 10.8-yard average and 19 touchdowns, while fellow junior Blake Simpson has compiled 1,357 yards on 184 attempts and a 7.4 average, along with 16 scores.
Senior Nash Robinson has been back in the backfield mix since moving over from defense and has added 445 yards and eight touchdowns on the season.
Defensively, sophomore Andon Thomas leads Liberty Hill with 96 tackles, while a pair of seniors in Drake Oberpriller and Walker Baty have 86 and 68, respectively.
Baty also leads the Panthers with 15 tackles-for-loss and nine sacks.
However, despite the success his club has had over the course of the current four-game winning streak, Walker hesitated to compare this season’s squad with the one who went all the way to the state championship game last year.
“We’re a totally different group this season,” he said, of the side which posted a 13-2 mark. “We lost 36 seniors to graduation.”
But, that doesn’t take anything away from the current version – in fact it might even add some luster, said Walker.
“I think right now our players are celebrating better than I’ve ever seen them,” he said. “I always knew we could do some great things if we got to the playoffs and now the players are believing they can achieve.”
One player who’s missed out on all the fun is senior safety Brady Brewer, who has been out for the season after a knee injury suffered against Connally earlier in the campaign.
But, Walker said Brewer has remained an integral part of the Panthers’ resurgence.
“We all think a lot about Brady in this building,” he said. “There have been a lot of times when I’m leaving for the day and he was still out on the field working on things – he’s paid a price and we still look to him for our leadership.”
With Walker’s penchant for strict routines, this week will be disrupted by the fact school is out for Thanksgiving.
But, no worries, he said.
“Our kids have been here and done this,” said Walker. “So, I don’t think it will affect us at all.”
For Walker and his entire coaching staff, the current renaissance has been just rewards for all the effort and work they’ve continued to put in behind the scenes in support of the players.
“I have a great staff here,” he said. “Without them, we couldn’t do any of this.”
But, that doesn’t mean anyone in Purple-and-Gold can ever rest on what has already been accomplished, said Walker.
“You know, on the sidelines the other night, one of the players said to me, ‘Coach, what I love about you is you’re never satisfied,’” he said. “I always think I can do better, but that’s just who I am.”
Walker added the gratification he and his players are now experiencing having saved their season has been worth all the trials and tribulations they’ve endured.
“Back when we were losing, people were yelling at us and telling us we weren’t any good,” he said. “But, now those same people are telling us how good we are. During all that time, the players and coaches never stopped believing in one another.”