Panthers to see themselves in the mirror Friday against Canyon Lake

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By Scott Akanewich

When the Panthers take the field at Hawk Stadium in Fischer on Friday against Canyon Lake, they’ll be battling for their playoff lives.

Ironically, when they look across the line of scrimmage, they’ll see themselves in the mirror.

Liberty Hill (3-5, 1-3) will take on Canyon Lake (6-3, 2-2) in a contest between clubs who both run the famed Slot-T offense the Panthers have perfected over the years, which will make the matchup all the more intriguing.

The Panthers must defeat the Hawks by at least six points in order to qualify for the postseason, but according to Liberty Hill Head Coach Jeff Walker, the fact the opposition runs the same offense as his squad does won’t necessarily be significant in determining the outcome.

“Sure, it’s a lot like watching ourselves,” said Walker. “But, it’s a little different because they run some different formations – I don’t think it really helps or hurts us they run the same stuff as us other than the fact they know our offense a little better than other teams do.”

Canyon Lake may run the Slot-T, but the Hawks have been nowhere near as proficient as the Panthers this season in doing so, as they are averaging 253.8 yards on the ground per game compared to Liberty Hill’s total of 356.8.

Sophomore James Bates leads Canyon Lake with 850 yards on 109 carries and nine touchdowns, followed by a pair of seniors in Ethan Slater (360 yards, two touchdowns) and Nic Rivera (346, four).

However, the Hawks have been more potent through the air than the Panthers, as junior quarterback Peyton McMullen has completed 27 of 78 passes for 610 yards and seven touchdowns on the season.

Liberty Hill’s offense has been led by a trio of juniors out of the backfield in Trey Seward (1,183 yards, 12 touchdowns), Blake Simpson (1,042, 11) and Eric De La Cruz (329, two).

Walker said despite the similarities between the two sides, it’s really a case of simply executing properly.

“I think our defense has a better understanding of their offense,” he said. “But, it’s going to be more about the Jimmies and Joes getting it done.”

Walker was encouraged by the fact the Panthers forced five turnovers in last week’s 63-0 home victory against Taylor.

“We have to win the turnover battle again this week,” he said. “We also have to be able to slow them down, eat up the clock like we know we can and punch it in when we get the opportunity.”

However, one thing the Hawks do have on their side is a size advantage over his squad, said Walker.

“They’re definitely bigger than us,” he said. “But, that’s usually the case on most nights for us when you line up with guys who go 187, 170 and 160.”

Walker said the fact his team is coming off a victory for the first time in six weeks provides his players with some impetus in getting ready for what is a de facto playoff game.

“We definitely feel better about ourselves,” he said. “But, we’re still a little nervous about this one, although it’s a different kind of nervous because if we win we keep playing and if we lose we turn our stuff in.”

For Walker, a season unlike any he’s had over the course of a coaching career that spans over two decades has unfolded in a way he’s not necessarily surprised about, only to the degree of the struggles, he said.

“We lost a lot of players off last season’s team,” said Walker. “But, if someone had told me before the season we’d need to win our last game just to get into the playoffs, I would’ve called them a liar.”

After a season filled with trials and tribulations the likes of which the program hasn’t endured in many years, Walker is keenly aware of the gravity of the situation he and his team find themselves in, he said.

“We have to do it this week,” said Walker. “We know it’s going to be a challenge, but we can’t worry about outside pressures – we just have to go out and execute.”

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