Quest for state title fueled Panthers’ fire

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By Scott Akanewich

An old adage in sports is you learn far more from defeat than victory.

So, when the Liberty Hill Panthers walked off the field after a 42-12 loss to Cuero in the fourth round of the Class 3A state playoffs on Dec. 2, 2005, a fire was lit – one which refused to be extinguished until not only had the Purple-and-Gold returned to that same point the following fall, but went on to win back-to-back state championships in 2006 and 2007.

According to Brent Bode, a senior running back on the 2006 squad, the quest for a title was something that consumed him and his teammates until the time all of their hard work and determination came to fruition in the form of a trophy.

“I had always dreamed of winning a state championship – that was my main goal in high school,” said Bode, currently an assistant coach at Marble Falls. “As players, we would constantly talk about and tell anybody who would listen we were going to win state in 2006. It’s hard to put it into words, but from the time we lost to Cuero in 2005 to when those final seconds ticked off the clock at Floyd Casey Stadium (Waco) the next season was just an unreal journey. Being able finish out that season with a state championship is something we’ll always remember and cherish.”

Bode certainly did his fair share of the heavy lifting for the Panthers as the leading rusher in the Slot-T offense, with 1,490 yards and 17 touchdowns, but he was quick to point out success was definitely a collective effort.

“Those teams in 2006 and 2007 were just different,” he said. “We all liked each other and played for one another. We had our squabbles and fights just like any team, but when the lights came on and we stepped out onto that field, it was all about ‘us’.”

Current Liberty Hill assistant coach Jordan Johns was a junior linebacker who played on both teams and backed up his former teammate’s assessment of the cohesion and camaraderie that existed down through the ranks of the roster and was a result of constant competition within the team as they strove for excellence individually and collectively.

“The thing that made those teams special is everyone competed every day with each other to prove who was the best,” said Johns. “Through all of this, it made everyone better and closer as a group.”

Johns added once the Panthers had ascended to the summit of the football mountain, getting back the following season was simply a matter of keeping the trains running with the momentum that had been gained during the first title run.

“The first championship was unbelievable – it was something you strive to do, but not many people get the chance to play for it all,” he said. “The second championship was more expected. We had the confidence we were the best Liberty Hill ever had and we were going to prove it each week.”

The Panthers followed up a 13-2 record in 2006 with a 14-0 campaign in 2007 under head coach Jerry Vance, who arrived in Liberty Hill in 2001 and went about building a powerhouse program – but only after being passed over for the job initially years earlier, he said.

“I had actually applied and interviewed for the Liberty Hill job in 1998 when the district chose Hal Wasson instead.  I had known the superintendent, Dr. Dean Andrews, for some years, first meeting him when I was coaching in Big Lake and later when his son Kyle and I both coached on Bruce Bush’s staff at Gregory-Portland,” said Vance. “When the position opened again in 2001, I applied again because I felt like the area was about to grow and there was great potential to build a championship program.”

Gray Lankford was an offensive lineman on the 2006 squad and attributed the side’s success to a synergy that had been developed among a core group who worked its way up the Liberty Hill ladder together, he said.

“We had a senior class of 16 guys that led that team (2006 state champions). These same guys started playing football together in 1999. The first year Pop Warner started in Liberty Hill, we were all in fifth grade. Those two years of Pop Warner, we never won a game,” said Lankford. “In the spring of 2000, Coach Vance was hired. He came and talked to us. He spoke to us about ‘holding the rope,’ dedication to your craft and a chance to do something never done before.”

Bode said it was exactly that kind of brotherhood, which translated into a well-oiled machine, that would grind opposing teams into oblivion every Friday night.

“We definitely weren’t the most talented, biggest or fastest team around, but we played harder and were more physical than anybody we played,” he said. “Our defense was relentless, constantly swarming and punishing opposing offenses. Offensively, we just pounded teams into submission. Usually by the fourth quarter and sometimes by the end of the first, teams gave up. They didn’t like our brand of physical football. They didn’t like getting hit in the mouth play after play.”

During that season, the Panthers had an uncanny ability to remain easygoing off the field, while playing with the ferocity of their namesakes once the ball was kicked off, said Bode.

“The 2006 offense was actually a really lose bunch of guys. We joked around a lot and liked the have a good time. Some of my fondest memories were actually the bus rides or just hanging out in the locker rooms or after PAC,” he said. “The coaches worried early on in the season we weren’t focused enough, but they quickly learned when we stepped onto the field, it was all business. The confidence we had as a team was off the charts. I’ve been around sports for a long time and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

For Lankford, it was more than just winning a state title – it was who he got to win it with, which has proven to be most gratifying over the years since, he said.

“I got to win a state championship with two of my best friends to this day – two guys I spent every Friday night blocking for — pulling, sealing and kicking out on the sweeps – Sammy Post and Brent Bode. Sammy is definitely the best of us – you only have to know him to know that. Brent walks to his own beat, but that’s what makes him special. I love them like my own brothers. Lifelong friendships are the best thing you can hope for coming out of high school and I’m luckier than most to have a state championship on top of that.”

But, Lankford derives enjoyment from not only the past, but the present and also what the future holds for the program, as tradition is passed down from one generation to the next.  

“I love that I can still go to a game and see the same faces in the stands,” he said. “Our parents are now grandparents – and grandparents are great-grandparents. We’re now bringing our kids to the games and letting them go throw plastic footballs on the berm. There isn’t a better man than (Current head) Coach (Jeff) Walker to take over this program after Coach Vance. We’re in good hands.”

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