Panthers take on undefeated Waco La Vega in district opener

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By KEITH SPARKS

Since Liberty Hill made the jump to Conference 4A in 2014, one district opponent has consistently given them trouble year after year. As a matter of fact, the Waco La Vega Pirates have been giving everybody trouble. The Pirates, who are an undefeated 5-0 so far this season, have lost just one game over the past three seasons, going undefeated in 2015 en route to a State Championship and losing only to China Spring in 2016’s Regional Final.

On Friday, Oct. 13, the Panthers will face the number two state-ranked Pirates in what will be each team’s first district matchup of the season. Liberty Hill lost last year’s matchup by a final score of 34-20, and lost their 2015 matchup 6-0 in a tightly contested overtime playoff game.

After two straight losses to the Pirates, what can the Panthers do to stop one of the most potent offenses in the state?

“That’s the million-dollar question, man,” said Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker. “That’s the million-dollar question. You’ve got to play sound defense and you’ve got to tackle well. That’s a big ‘if’ with those guys. You’ve got to run to the ball and you have to tackle well. They’re pretty good at making people miss, so we’ve got to make sure we do a good job of tackling them in open space, and that’s easier said than done. That’s really the key is getting to the ball and making the tackle.”

Walker’s comment that the Pirates are “pretty good at making people miss” might be the understatement of the century. The Pirates, who have the highest point total in District 13-4A, are averaging more than 40 points per game, and their points are coming from all over the place.

“They like to run the football, but they can throw it,” Walker said. “They’ve got some skilled kids they can throw to, but they’re going to run the football. They have three really good backs, number 22, number 17, and 6. They all run the ball about equally, and they’re all really dangerous. Their quarterback can do some stuff with his feet and arm, so it’s definitely a challenge.”

During their last game on Sept. 29, as the Pirates beat Waco Connally by a final score of 42-2, touchdowns came from running back John Richards, running back Cameron Henry, running back Kemoche’ Hobbs, and a defensive touchdown on a fumble recovery, making it impossible for opposing defenses to key in on any one player.

“I mean…they’re good,” Walker said. “Right now they’re 5-0, they were 13-1 last year, and they were 14 or 15-0 the year before. They’ve only lost one game in three years, so they’re just a good, sound team. They’re well-coached. They have great athletes, and you just think, well, that they’re great athletes, but you start watching them and they’re well-coached. I tell people all the time when you get great players and a great system and great coaches, you have a great team, and that’s kind of where they’re at. They do what they do really, really well.”

As tough as it is to imagine, their defense may be even more dominant than their offense. The Pirates have given up only 28 points in five games, giving up 7 against Fairfield, 0 against Lorena, 12 against YMLA, 7 against Mexia, and 2 against Connally, which were given up by their offense on a safety.

“Defensively, I think they’re giving up something like only three points a game this year,” Walker said. “They’re super strong on defense and they’re returning a lot of their defense from last year. They’re playing really good defense right now. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s a challenge we’re excited about. I think our kids are not going to back down. It’s going to be fun. We’re at home and we know we have a challenge ahead of us, but we look forward to it.”

From an individual talent perspective, few teams matchup with La Vega’s firepower one-on-one, but, according to Walker, the Panthers have a chance if all 11 guys on their side of the field do what they’ve been coached to do.

“I know four or five of those guys will be going to play at the next level,” Walker said. “They’ve got some Division I football players on their team, and we’re aware of it, but we know it takes 11, and I think that’s kind of the key. If we play as a team and do what we’ve got to do, we’ll take care of ourselves.”

Walker made it clear that he hasn’t had to explain to his team how much this game means. In a district as powerful as District 13-4A, every game counts from this point on. If the Panthers want to advance deep into the postseason, they’re going to have to beat teams like La Vega.

“There’s no doubt that they know how big it is,” Walker said. “I know La Vega, year before last, won it all, and last year they were 13-1, so they haven’t lost many games in the last three or four years, and we’ve played these guys. That quarterback they have started as a sophomore, their linebacker started as a freshman, their other running back started as a sophomore, so two years ago, all these guys were still playing. We’re very familiar with them and we know what they’re capable of doing, but I don’t think you have to build up stuff like this. You don’t build these games up; the kids know what’s coming. A lot of times, you have to build up other teams that are a little weaker so you don’t overlook them, but there will be no overlooking La Vega. These kids are very aware of what they’ve done in the past and what they’ve done to Liberty Hill in the past few years.”

Although the Panthers are familiar with a lot of La Vega’s personnel, it isn’t necessarily an advantage for Liberty Hill. While they do have a heads-up on what to expect come Friday night, those Pirates that were winning a State Championship as sophomores two years ago are now experienced seniors.

“Them being there two or three years, we’ve seen them, but I think that’s more of an advantage to them, because they’ve got some experience playing on Fridays,” Walker said. “A lot of those kids won a State Championship as sophomores, so they’ve got some experience playing in big-time games, too, and we do not.”

Last week, Walker highlighted health as one of the main focuses of the bye week, hoping to have a more robust roster than the battered and bruised one they’ve been rolling out the last few weeks. While a lot of those that were previously injured will remain sidelined, Walker does expect to have a few back against La Vega.

“It’s a little better, but some of it’s still up in the air,” Walker said. “With some of them, we don’t know, but we’re getting a few of them back. We’re not real sure how much they can pound and do some of those things, but we should be a little healthier, which is good. We’re still going to have five, six, seven key guys out, which all year has kind of been our case, but we’re getting a few of them back. They’ll practice this week and we’ll see how they go, but it definitely helped to get the week off. If we’d have played last week, I don’t know if any of them would have played.”

During the Panthers’ last game against Austin Anderson, the majority of their backfield was limited due to injuries. Running backs Elijah Davis and Hunter Oncken were sidelined for the majority of the game, and Reid Sanders missed his fourth straight to start the season. After two weeks of limited practice without a game, the backfield is starting to get healthier, and should look more like Walker expected it to before the season began.

“We think we’re going to have Oncken back, but Sanders just isn’t in game shape,” Walker said. “We’ve got him back and we think he’s 100 percent, but now he’s just moving like it’s week one, but it’s understandable. Davis seems to be moving alright, so I think as the backfield goes, we could be as healthy as possible. Oncken’s coming off of a concussion, though, so he’s taking it slow. He’s had no contact for three weeks, so we don’t exactly what’s to come with that, but barring headaches, we should have him back, and Sanders will probably start in the backfield this week and try to get his feet a little wet.”

The Panthers’ district opener will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, at Panther Stadium.

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