Panthers visit Pflugerville in need of win
By Scott Akanewich
After this week’s road game against Pflugerville Connally, the Panthers of Liberty Hill will have a two-week break in the schedule before beginning district play on Oct. 11 when they host Fredericksburg.
They’re hoping the bye won’t be the beginning of a possible goodbye to the current season.
Liberty Hill (1-2) has lost consecutive contests against Hutto and Manor after a season-opening victory against Glenn, the first time the Panthers have dropped back-to-back games since the 2012 season.
Things don’t get any easier this week as they will visit Pflugerville Connally, the fourth consecutive Class 5A squad they’ve lined up against to begin the current campaign.
However, the Cougars are 0-3, having lost to Austin (51-49), Del Valle (47-28) and Bastrop (35-21) last week.
But, then again, Manor was also winless entering last week’s game against the Panthers, so take nothing lightly, said Liberty Hill head coach Jeff Walker.
“They’re another athletic team from Class 5A Division I,” he said. “We know they’re going to look at our record right now and we’re going to get their best game, so it’ll be another challenge.”
Last season, the Panthers crushed the Cougars at home by a score of 89-34 in a game in which seniors Kyle Harrison and Shane Gonzalez each rushed for 112 yards on 12 carries. In fact, Nash Robinson is the only running back still on the Panthers’ roster who gained yardage (five carries, 33 yards) in the contest.
So far this season, senior Robinson (40 carries, 204 yards, three touchdowns) has shared the rushing load with juniors Blake Simpson (50-400, 3 TDs) and Trey Seward (49-365, 2 TDs) and although the Panthers have rushed for a average of 335.7 yards per game, it’s still far off last year’s pace of 494.5.
However, it’s not any lack of offensive production which has hurt his club so far this season, but sloppiness and undisciplined play, said Walker.
“We certainly can’t commit 16 penalties like we did or fumble the ball four times,” he said. “We’re going to have to fix that in order to beat most teams. We know we have to eliminate mistakes and make big plays.”
The Panthers completed their first scoring pass of the season agianst the Mustangs, a 16-yard strike from Jacob Cearley to Kaden McMahan before the former was forced from the game after the first half due to injury.
Drake Oberpriller is Liberty Hill’s leading tackler on the season with 29, but will have to sit out the first half of the game against Connally after being ejected with back-to-back unsportsmanlike penalties late in the fourth quarter against Manor.
Cearley’s status for the game is uncertain meaning Charlie Calabretta would start in the senior’s place, but Walker has no qualms about having the junior signal-caller under center.
“Jacob’s our leader and he’ll be missed,” he said. “But, Charlie’s proven in practice he can get it done.”
Walker also praised another trio of Panthers for their early-season efforts.
“Drake Oberpriller has stepped up for us and Austin Knox has been playing well,” he said. “Also, Walker Baty’s always a force when he’s out there. But, we need every player to get better and we need to come up with better game plans as coaches.”
Looking beyond this week, especially with two weeks with no games looming, Walker said some evaluations will be made moving forward.
“We’re always looking for the best players in Liberty Hill,” he said. “We still need to to find our best 22 who will help us be successful.”
Walker said much of his squad’s struggles have been a result of poor technique when it comes to blocking and tackling.
“We’ve been playing too high,” he said. “Right now, we have too many people being pushed around. We need to come off the ball a lot better and focus on being low.”
A big part of that is having the upper hand on opposing defenses in knowing exactly when each play will begin, said Walker.
“We have to win the snap count,” he said. “I told our offense we know two things on every play the defense doesn’t – where the ball is going and the snap count.”
Walker attributed much of the offensive issues to the fact the entire offensive line is new for this season.
“We had a really good class leave and only had two or three lineman returning,” he said. “So, we knew there were going to be growing pains. We’re about where I thought we would be in that regard, but I thought our record would be better.”
All that said, he knows his team needs a win in the worst way, especially with a two-week hiatus in the near future.
“We’re excited about getting another chance this week,” said Walker. “It’s huge – we don’t want to be 1-3 going into the bye weeks.”