By KEITH SPARKS
Leading up to their final district game of the season, the Panthers will have to do everything in their power in order to put last week’s 59-58 thriller over China Spring in the rearview.
The impact of last week’s win over the Cougars can’t be overstated, but this week will hold its own story.
The Gatesville Hornets, who hold a 2-2 district record and sit at fourth place in the district standings, have dealt with performance-enhancing drug allegations since the summer, and those allegations have resurfaced in a big way in recent weeks.
On Oct. 27, the UIL’s State Executive Committee overturned a decision by District 13-4A’s District Executive Committee to suspend six Gatesville varsity football players for 30 days. The UIL cited a lack of failed drug tests, despite a Gatesville Junior High coach admitting to having a nurse inject them with what they thought to be testosterone boosters.
Controversy aside, the Panthers can lock up second place in the district with a win over the Hornets at Gatesville High School on Friday. A win would bring Liberty Hill’s district record to 4-1, which would cement their spot behind La Vega, who will more than likely take care of business against Burnet this week to remain undefeated on the season.
According to Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker, a win over Gatesville would likely pit the Panthers against Boerne, which he thinks would be far from an easy first-round matchup. If La Vega beats Burnet and China Spring beats Lampasas, as they should, a loss to Gatesville would drop the Panthers to fourth in the district based on point differential, which would pit the Panthers against the winner of Friday’s game between Canyon Lake and Taylor.
Gatesville also has a playoff spot locked up, regardless of Friday’s result, but could take third place in the district with a win following two straight losses to China Spring and La Vega. Considering it’s their seniors’ final home game, Walker expects a battle as the Hornets try to avoid a three-game losing streak to end the season.
“It’s a big week for Gatesville,” Walker said. “I’m sure it’ll be their big blackout game. Seniors’ last game. They’ve lost their last two after starting 7-0. They don’t want to lose three in a row going into playoffs, and they’re a really dangerous, good football team, so it’s going to be a challenge going over there and getting back up after that game Friday night and going again. I do think we’ll play hard, and I like our chances, but it’s going to be a challenge.”
Prior to their two-game losing streak, Gatesville was consistently ranked in the top 10 in the state from week to week. Now, Max Preps has them ranked at number 18. According to Walker, much of the Hornets’ success can be credited to their senior-heavy offense, including senior quarterback Jett Truss.
“They’re a Spread with a great quarterback who’s a three-year starter and the Offensive Coordinator’s son,” Walker said. “They have three or four really skilled kids to throw it to. This is their year. They’re loaded with seniors. They thought this was their year to win it all, so it’s going to be a big challenge.”
With respect to the Hornets’ defense, Walker referenced the Panthers’ matchup with Gatesville during one of Liberty Hill’s State Championship runs, where the Hornets were able to hold the Panthers to 14 points in the first half during a time when they were typically scoring much more.
“Defensively, they’re scrappy, as always,” Walker said. “They’ve always given us problems. In ’06 or ’07, we went over there and it was 14-14 at halftime during a time when we were winning it all. We ended up beating them pretty bad, but they’ve always played us pretty good over there. They’ve always played us pretty good, in general.”
Arguably, the Hornets’ biggest advantage is in the trenches, where their offensive line dwarfs the Panthers’ defensive line by a long shot.
“They’re super big up front,” Walker said. “I mean, they’re 6’2”, 280 across the board on the offensive line. We don’t match up with that very well on our defensive side. They look a lot like La Vega up front, which is something we don’t see a lot.”
Another one of the Hornets’ strengths lies in their consistent execution of the offensive system they have in place, made even stronger by Truss’ abilities both on the ground and through the air. For reference, Truss led the Hornets to a 31-26 victory over Cameron Yoe in September, who were ranked number one at the Conference 3A level at the time, with three rushing touchdowns and one passing touchdown on 121 rushing yards and 141 yards through the air.
“They do a good job with what they do,” Walker said. “They have a good little scheme right now, and their quarterback can throw it and run it. He’s a great runner and a great thrower. That always scares me more than anything. If you’ve got a quarterback that can just throw it, we can key the running back. If you’ve got to watch the running back and watch the quarterback for a run, and he can also throw it to all these great receivers, they’re three-dimensional and it’s tough.”
Walker has been consistent all season with his message that Liberty Hill wants to play the best. Despite the controversy surrounding Gatesville’s PED allegations, he’d rather play a team at full strength than one that’s missing some of its key players.
“We like challenges,” Walker said. “We want to play everybody at their best. We’re excited about it. Well, I’m excited about it. I don’t know if the kids have come down from (the China Spring game) yet, but they seem to be in pretty good spirits right now. Obviously, we know that we still have to work on a lot of things to become a good football team, but their attitudes were good this morning when we met, so I think we’re ready to go.”
The Panthers’ final regular season district game will take place at Gatesville’s McKamie Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10.