Panthers thump Cougars 59-13
By Scott Akanewich
Trey Seward bounced to the outside.
Then the junior running back did it again – and again – and again.
By the time Liberty Hill’s 59-13 road demolition of Pflugerville Connally was done on Thursday night,
Seward has rushed for 166 yards on 17 carries and scored five touchdowns, as the visitors broke out of their two-game slump, churning out 466 yards of total offense on the evening, with 412 courtesy of the Panthers’ potent run game.
However, Seward wasn’t the only Panthers’ back running wild on a beleaguered Cougars’ defense, as Blake Simpson ran 19 times for 126 yards and a score and Eric De La Cruz posted a solid effort with 110 yards on 10 carries including a 60-yard sprint to the end zone.
Liberty Hill’s offense continued to exploit the right side of Connolly’s defense throughout the game, with Seward slashing his way for big chunks of yardage time and again.
“A lot of those runs were designed to go inside,” said Seward. “But, I was able to bounce it outside instead. I was just going as fast as I could.”
The Panthers debuted brand-new all-yellow uniforms and the bright color scheme seemed to work immediately as senior Walker Baty made a crunching tackle for a loss of yardage on the first series of the game, which ultimately led to a 3rd-and-19 for the home side, which they failed to convert, forcing them to punt.
On the Panthers’ first possession, it looked as if the penalties which had dogged them the past two weeks would continue to do so, as a 38-yard Seward run was nullified by a pair of infractions – holding and unsportsmanlike conduct, which meant instead of being in business at the Cougars’ 20-yard line, they were pushed all the way back to their own 19, forcing them to punt the ball away.
But shortly thereafter, Liberty Hill’s Austin Knox forced a fumble which provided the Panthers with a gift touchdown to open the scoring as Seward rumbled in from four yards out for a 7-0 advantage.
On the ensuing Cougars possession, the defense came up big again as Canyon Schirpik and Baty collapsed the Connally pocket for a sack which turned the ball over on downs.
Liberty Hill failed to capitalize as Simpson fumbled the ball back to the Cougars, but it was once again Knox who impacted the early proceedings by intercepting a pass and returning it 40 yards leading to a 34-yard Seward scoring run and a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter. The play marked the fourth consecutive game in which the Panthers picked off a pass.
Later in the second stanza, junior quarterback Charlie Calabretta, who was filling in for injured starter Jacob Cearley, fired a quick slant pass to senior Layton Bolin for a first down, the first completion of Callabretta’s high-school career and a foreshadowing of what was to come later in the game.
Simpson continued to pound away at the Connally defense with one bruising run after another, constantly carrying tacklers after contact, including a three-yard touchdown and a 21-0 lead.
Matthew Shipley added a 32-yard field goal with under a minute left in the second for a 24-0 Panthers lead at the half.
The Liberty Hill defense continued to dominate the Cougars, at one point not allowing a positive yard to be gained by the home side’s offense on eight consecutive plays, before Baty provided a bookend sack to end the second quarter.
The Panthers received the opening kick to begin the second half, with Justin Coffey returning it 22 yards, giving the Liberty Hill offense good starting field position before Calabretta lofted a perfectly-thrown pass into the waiting arms of Seward for a 43-yard gain down the left sideline all the way down to the Connolly 15-yard line.
Seward finished off the drive with a three-yard run and a 31-0 lead.
The Panthers’ defense came up big moments later when Lloyd Johnson, Schirpik and Andon Thomas combined to rock Connolly’s quarterback for a loss of yardage, after which De La Cruz broke off a 60-yard scoring run to add to Seward’s fourth and fifth touchdowns of the contest to increase the lead to 52-0.
Connally was then able to pull back a pair of touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, but it was already far too late.
As for the Seward’s sparking play, Liberty Hill head coach Jeff Walker said it was simply a matter of getting the ball in the right hands.
“We just have to let our playmakers make plays,” said Walker. “They were packing the middle, so we decided to toss it outside.”
After another spotless performance at quarterback by Calabretta, the Panthers sideline boss got exactly what he expected, he said.
“Charlie doesn’t surprise us with anything he does,” said Walker. “He did a good job again this week and I think the more he plays, the more comfortable he’s going to be.”
So will there be a quarterback controversy when Cearley returns and the Panthers come out of their two-week bye period as a result?
“Jacob’s our starting quarterback,” said Walker. “But, we’re going to do what’s best for the football team. We might realize we need him more at safety. But, as of today, he’s our starter.”
After senior Nash Robinson got most of the backfield work in the season’s first three games alongside Simpson and Seward, he saw limited action against Connolly, which opened the door for De La Cruz to shine and provided an opportunity for the coaching staff to get a look at some different players, said Walker.
“Eric’s a pretty good runner,” he said. “So, it’s a battle. Nash got he chance to play the first three weeks, but this week the opportunity was there for Eric and we wanted to see some different backs.”
Knox left the game with an undisclosed injury, but not after wreaking havoc on the Cougars’ offense, forcing a pair of turnovers which led to 14 Panthers points.
“Austin is really good football player,” said Walker.
At the end of the evening, Walker was pleased his club was able to break back into the win column after a rough few weeks.
“A win tonight was very important for us, but now our focus shifts to district,” he said. “So, we need to have two really good weeks of practice.”
Liberty Hill (2-2) will next host Fredericksburg on Oct. 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the District 14-4A opener.