Playoff game sparks long rivalry
By SEAN SHAPIRO
It’s the most important game Liberty Hill has played in six years and it can be summed up in three simple words.
“It’s Burnet week.”
“That’s it,” Liberty Hill coach Jerry Vance said. “If you need us to say something else to get you going then there’s a problem.”
Separated by a 20-mile stretch on State Highway 29, Liberty Hill and Burnet don’t like each other. For years the teams met in the regular season, often with district titles and playoff berths on the line.
But, there’s never been a Liberty Hill-Burnet game with this much on the line.
The winner of the Class 4A, Division I quarterfinals at Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex – the famed “Palace on Parmer” – will be one step away from the state championship game at AT&T Stadium. The loser, well, neither team is considering what it would be like to lose on Friday.
“Everybody is going to get the matchup they wanted to see,” Burnet coach Kurt Jones said. “But it’s got a lot higher stakes than anyone could have imagined. Everybody looks toward this game, now we’ll have everyone in central Texas paying attention.”
Liberty Hill meeting Burnet in the state quarterfinals rights the injustice many felt when the UIL unintentionally sacked the historic rivalry back in February.
Despite their proximity, the two schools were unexpectedly drawn into different districts for the first time since 2007.
Blindsided, Vance and Jones worked to try and schedule a non-district contest between the teams. But, verbal agreements by both coaches with their eventual non-district opponents took precedence.
“We always thought there was no way we’d be put in a different district if we were the same size,” Vance said. “You have to honor your word and we couldn’t make it work.” Football, however, had a way of fixing things itself and the teams are meeting for the first time in the postseason.
“I hoped this would happen,” Charlie Braun, the Panthers coach from 1978 to 1989, said. “If we want to reach state, I knew it would have to happen with us going through Burnet.”
When it comes to Liberty Hill and Burnet, there aren’t many people more well-versed than Braun, who should be considered the father of the rivalry’s re-birth.
There are some holes in the distant history, but it’s widely accepted that the teams first met 100 years ago in 1914. Other than the final score – it was a 6-6 tie – there aren’t many known details of that first bout.
The teams then met sporadically until 1941 with Burnet winning the majority of the games, as Liberty Hill recorded its first win in the series in 1932 – a 14-0 victory.
School size then separated the rivals for 43 years.
Burnet grew into a Class 3A program, while Liberty Hill existed as a Class 1A or 2A school until the early 1980s. With growth on the horizon, the series was re-born when Braun started scheduling Burnet as a non-district opponent.
“I knew sooner or later we were going to 3A, so I wanted to play the top 3A teams in the area,” Braun said. “I was getting them ready for the future, I didn’t want it to be a great big shock when we got there.”
There was some initial pushback from Burnet, which Braun said viewed Liberty Hill as “a little itty bitty school.” But once they met on the field the non-district contest became a staple of the schedule after a 43-year vacancy.
“I remember their coach making a statement to one of the papers about Liberty Hill,” Braun said. “He said, ‘they always look like a bunch of rag knots. But they’ll knock your head off in the ball game.’”
Today the teams are relatively even when it comes to manpower – Liberty Hill is actually a slightly larger school – and the rivalry has re-heated since the Panthers victory against Rockport-Fulton last Saturday.
No one has used the word “rag knots,” at least not yet, but Facebook comments and Tweets have become heated between players and fans, many of whom will try and fill the 11,000-seat stadium to capacity on Friday night.
It wouldn’t be the first time Panther and Bulldog fans packed a stadium.
“I remember one meeting at Old Panther where people from Burnet were in line to buy tickets at 3 p.m. on Friday, because otherwise they’d be stuck standing,” Braun said. “They’re going to push that stadium and try and fill it up this week.”
After all, it’s Burnet week.