Weather stops play in Panther season opener

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Panthers’ senior cornerback Dyllon Joiner knocks a pass out of the hands of a La Grange receiver during Liberty Hill’s first game of the season. The Leopards were up 7-0 in the first quarter, but the game was cancelled due to weather, and will not be rescheduled. (Alex Rubio Photo)

Panthers’ senior cornerback Dyllon Joiner knocks a pass out of the hands of a La Grange receiver during Liberty Hill’s first game of the season. The Leopards were up 7-0 in the first quarter, but the game was cancelled due to weather, and will not be rescheduled. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By KEITH SPARKS

Last Friday night’s game against La Grange was an eerie one from the get-go. Although there were no rain clouds over Panther Stadium at kickoff, the city was surrounded. North of Panther Stadium, lightning struck for the first time around 7:30 p.m., and the sky around it did not look promising.

On La Grange’s first play from scrimmage, Ohio State commit JK Dobbins ran for 12 yards along the sideline, but did not get up after he was hit. Dobbins was flat on his back for a few minutes before being helped to the bench with an injury to his right ankle, which left him on crutches with an ice pack.

La Grange senior quarterback Colter Siptak appeared uncomfortable for the first few plays after Dobbins went out.

Last week, Liberty Hill Head Coach Jerry Vance suggested that Dobbins was essentially the Leopards’ entire offense. Now, the game lay on Siptak’s shoulders. His first pass was completed for 12 yards. His second, however, was intercepted by Liberty Hill senior Dyllon Joiner.

With La Grange’s star running back on the bench with an injury, and their quarterback apparently rattled, the Panthers now had the momentum, or so it seemed. On Liberty Hill’s first offensive play of the game, Panthers’ senior running back Brandon Barfield fumbled the ball on a run up the middle, returning possession to the Leopards.

La Grange moved down the field on their second drive with ease. Their offense, now equipped with its backup running back, sophomore Jericho Haardt, didn’t skip a beat. After Haardt spearheaded a first down to Liberty Hill’s 34-yard line, Siptak found his tight end, senior Julio Ramirez, for a 33-yard pass to the 1-yard line. After stuffing Haardt up the gut for no gain, the Panther defense allowed Siptak to reach over the goal line on a quarterback sneak for a 1-yard touchdown.

La Grange’s ensuing kickoff went out of bounds for a penalty. At this point, massive lightning strikes flashed across the sky just north of Liberty Hill. Before the Panther offense had a chance to take the field again, the announcer’s voice came over the loudspeaker, letting fans and those on the field know that play would be suspended for at least 30 minutes.

“When thunder is heard within 30 seconds of a visible lightning strike, or a cloud-to-ground lightning bolt is seen, the thunderstorm is close enough to strike your location with lightning. Suspend play for 30 minutes and take shelter immediately,” reads the UIL’s guidelines regarding visible lightning during play. “Once activities have been suspended, wait at least 30 minutes following the last sound of thunder or lightning flash prior to resuming an activity or returning outdoors.”

Rain began to fall after the players had left the field, and lightning continued to strike north of the stadium, extending the suspension another half-hour every time it did. At 9:13 p.m., the game was officially cancelled and ruled “no contest,” which essentially means the game will be treated like it never happened, and that it will not be rescheduled.

Although the end result was frustrating for both teams, it’s something that Coach Vance has dealt with before, having seen a similar situation on at least three other occasions since he’s been at Liberty Hill.

“It happens,” Vance said. “I think coaches are more apt to do that in non-district, especially the first games. You don’t want to take a chance. A lot of it, too, is that you’re looking at who you play next week. You play on Saturday and it throws your whole routine.”

If the coaches had chosen to, the teams could have waited until 11:59 p.m., at the latest, to continue play. Considering the drive home that La Grange had ahead of them, and the nature of a non-district game so early on in the season, La Grange’s head coach decided that complete cancellation was the way to go, and Coach Vance wasn’t going to argue his decision.

“It was his decision,” Vance said, “but we have an app on the phone that lets us know, and I got the all clear at 10:45, so if we’re sitting here waiting until 10:45, it’s going to take you another 20 minutes to warm up again, and by the time the game is finished, even with no band or halftime, the game’s not going to be over until 12:30, 1:00, and they have to turn around and go home.”

Although the Panthers were only on the field for a few minutes, Coach Vance was able to use the first quarter as a teaching opportunity, keeping the players on campus for a late-night film session after the game had officially been cancelled.

“We started film at about 9 o’clock,” Vance said. “They left at about 10:15 after we went through film with them. Even in that short time, there was an awful lot that we could point out that we need to do better. There were a couple things that we liked, so, yeah, we got something out of those five minutes.”

The Panthers will get a second chance to start their season on a high note this Friday against La Vernia in a game that Vance said he will treat as if it were their first of the season. He expects to see the same mistakes and learning opportunities that he would have against La Grange last week. The Panthers will play against La Vernia at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bear Stadium, 225 Bluebonnet Drive in La Vernia.

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