Vance says Walker has state championship advantage

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By Keith Sparks

Although it’s been a while, this isn’t the first time the Panthers have been among the favorites to win the State Championship, and this isn’t the first time Head Coach Jeff Walker has been in such a position with the Panthers.

In 2006 and 2007, the Panthers’ State Championship years, Walker was the offensive coordinator for Jerry Vance, Liberty Hill’s head coach at the time. According to Vance, Walker’s experience in those games should serve as a major advantage.

“I think the more experience you have doing those kinds of things, the better you are when you get there,” Vance said. “It’s not brand new, you’re not in awe of all the hoopla that goes along with it, and you treat it just as another game. Obviously, it’s more important, but you still approach it with the same approach that you’ve done to all the other ones.”

Although there are some similarities between this year’s team and those two State Championship teams, there are also some significant differences. Walker looks back on fullback Doug Allman’s impact on those teams as one major difference.

“I can tell you the years we won the State Championship, we were a lot healthier than we are this year,” Walker said. “We didn’t have the injuries. We would not have been there if we’d have lost our fullback like we did this year. We would not have won either one of them, probably, if we’d have lost him.”

Former Panther running backs Allman and Brent Bode were important pieces of the puzzle more than a decade ago, but that responsibility now lies primarily on Kyle Harrison and Shane Gonzalez, with the help of lineman-turned-fullback Kristian Taggart after losing two fullbacks for the season in Jakob Schofield and Reid Sanders. Fortunately, Vance thinks they still have the talent in the backfield to make up for those losses.

“Both of those teams, and this team also, have great running backs,” Vance said. “We had Brent Bode and (Doug) Allman as our fullback, but all three teams had great running backs and they had great offensive lines.”

Despite the fact that the Panthers have gone through at least four fullbacks in 2018, Vance’s advice is to not abandon the fullback position, regardless of the injuries that have taken place.

“You still have to run the fullback,” Vance said. “You still have to do that. Every once in a while, one is going to pop, and then everybody has to concentrate on that fullback again. You still have to run that guy. We’ve always said that our guards and our fullbacks are interchangeable. In fact, the first year we won a State Championship, we had a guard that had been a halfback. You’ve got some built-in kids that are tough, strong kids that are very important for that fullback position.”

A strong backfield and capable offensive line are the obvious keys to a title run with the Slot-T, but there are also some aspects that are outside of anybody’s control, namely injuries and timing. Luckily for the Panthers, timing has worked to their advantage in a few different ways, one being the talent of this year’s senior class and another being the departure of Waco La Vega and China Spring from their district.

“It’s a lot about our kids, and the timing’s got to be right,” Walker said. “I think timing is as big as anything. People have down years. In 4A, it’s hard to stay at the top all the time because of classes. You’ll have a class like we do right now with 32 seniors, and we’ll probably only have 12 seniors next year, so you have to have some back-to-back-to-back classes to do it.”

While injuries have no doubt been an issue for the Panthers in 2018, they’re currently as close to full-strength as they have been in a long time, which is huge at this point in the season. Starting cornerback Matthew Montes is likely out for the season, but safety Wyatt Cheney, linebacker Brenden Ketchem, and running back Shane Gonzalez, all of which have missed games with injuries, are as healthy as can be expected.

The returns of Cheney and Ketchem have clearly given the Panther defense more confidence as of late, allowing them to slam the brakes on some prolific offenses. Vance was able to watch the Panthers’ matchup with Sealy on Friday, and in his opinion, the Liberty Hill defense looked sharp enough to win a State Championship.

“The defenses came around and were really playing well (in 2006 and 2007), and I think we played about as good a defensive game Friday night as I’ve seen in a long time,” Vance said.

When it comes down to the final stretch, Vance said the most important thing as a coach is “staying simple” with schemes. The Panthers have come this far for a reason, so there’s no reason to get any more or less creative with the play calling at this point in the season.

“I think staying simple,” Vance said. “Don’t outcoach yourself. Stay within what you do and what you’ve been doing. It’s what made you successful, so there’s no reason to get away from it when you’ve been that successful with what you do.”

Of course, Walker knows that, having been here before, and Vance doesn’t think it will be an issue for his successor.

“Sometimes, I’ve talked to other coaches that have been in State games, and they changed everything they’d been doing, and they got beat,” Vance said. “Then they look back and say, ‘Why? What happened?’ Being there, doing what we’ve done the whole time will be a great advantage to Jeff.”

Before we find out just how similar these teams are on the state’s biggest stage, the Panthers will first have to get past La Vernia in San Marcos on Saturday.

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