Raiders next for Panthers
By Scott Akanewich
After shutting down a potent Boerne Champion passing game in its 41-0 second-round playoff victory against the Chargers on Dec. 18, Liberty Hill’s defense will face an even more powerful opponent in its third-round postseason matchup with Rouse in Round Rock on Dec. 26.
Panthers interim head coach Kent Walker’s defensive unit hasn’t allowed even a single point in posting seven straight shutouts, not letting the opposition score since a last-minute touchdown by Del Valle in a 44-27 road win over the Cardinals on Oct. 2.
Walker certainly knows what he and his entire team is up against.
“(Rouse Head) Coach Mann does a great job over there and it should be a really good football game,” he said. “They’re explosive on offense and they’ve got a really good defense, as well.”
The Raiders, who currently boast a 10-1 record, after winning District 13 with a perfect 7-0 mark, are led by sophomore signal-caller Mason Shorb, who put up eye-popping numbers this season under center, completing 153-of-233 passes for 2,692 yards to go with 34 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
Shorb is a classic pocket passer who spreads the ball around to a variety of receivers, including senior wideout Drew Henson, who has caught 50 passes for 802 yards and eight touchdowns, although Troy Oliver leads the Raiders in both receiving yards (924) and receiving touchdowns (11), tied for the team lead with Jalen Becerra, who is averaging a squad-best 21 yards per reception.
However, Rouse can also beat opponents on the ground, with junior EJ Moore leading the Raiders’ rushing attack, with 1,133 yards on 172 carries and a team-leading 12 touchdowns.
“They have a really good quarterback, a really good running back and some receivers they spread the ball around to – they’re a very well-balanced football team,” said Walker.
So, the game sizes up to be a classic high-powered offense vs. dominant defense showdown and at the tip of the Liberty Hill spear is junior linebacker Andon Thomas, whose 10 tackles against Champion led the Panthers.
Thomas said the further he and his teammates venture into the postseason, the more they will need to amplify the effort in getting ready for each contest.
“The intensity in practice has just kept us going,” he said. “We just need to pick it up even more next week and keep on going.”
Junior defensive lineman Lloyd Johnson has been a menace to opposing offenses all season and as the games have gotten bigger, so has his game, including a sack of Champion quarterback Karson Kaiser, along with three hurries of the Chargers’ quarterback to go with three tackles on the contest.
Against Champion, the Liberty Hill defensive secondary also came up with the goods on a pair of interceptions – one each by senior Bryce Rampy and another by Carter Hudson, all part of a downfield shutdown which included six passes defended, a number bested only by the eight against Del Valle earlier in the campaign.
Although much of the recent spotlight has shone on the Panthers’ defense, the Liberty Hill offense has continued to crank out yards as if hashmarks are going out of style.
Against Champion, the Panthers ground out a season-high 521 rushing yards, led by senior Blake Simpson, who gained 184 yards on 15 carries – a hefty 12.3-yard average – and a touchdown, including a 59-yard sprint on Liberty Hill’s first offensive play from scrimmage.
Simpson is now the Panthers’ leading rusher, with 1,182 yards on 116 carries and 17 touchdowns, passing fellow senior Trey Seward, who has 1,175 yards on 130 attempts and 17 touchdowns on the season.
An added boost will be provided by the return of senior starting fullback Eric De La Cruz, who will return to the lineup after missing the past two games due to quarantine.
Rouse is coming off a 57-28 victory over Mercedes in the second round, a contest in which Shorb was 11-of-13 for 307 yards and four touchdowns and Moore rushed for 155 yards on 23 carries, while Oliver caught four passes for 134 yards and a pair of scores.
So, Walker knows his defense will have its work cut out for it when they line up against the Raiders – although after shutting down Champion, the Purple Reign is gaining more and more momentum moving forward – and complacency is simply not an option.
“Sure, it definitely gives our defense a little bit of confidence,” he said. “But we try to preach to our kids all the time we’ve got to get better every day – we have to be better next week than we were this week – we have to be better at practice on Monday than we were tonight.”