By KEITH SPARKS
After a full month of practicing and not a single opportunity to show their stuff in a game, the Panthers are finally ready to get “paid,” figuratively speaking.
“It’s always just exciting to get the bands and the popcorn going and all that stuff for these kids,” said Head Coach Jeff Walker, “because when you work, you need a payday. Friday’s our payday, and we haven’t had a payday, yet. We’ve been working a month now and haven’t gotten paid for it, so I’m excited for the kids.”
After preparing for weeks to play a La Grange team whose city was devastated by floods during the days leading up to the game last Friday, the Panthers found themselves without an opponent for week one. For a football team that had spent so much time in preparation for a team they’d no longer get to play, last week was anything but normal.
“I don’t think you can make it normal,” Walker said of what has been a strange couple of weeks for the Liberty Hill football program. “We kind of knew early on that we weren’t going to play La Grange, but we weren’t for sure, for sure that we weren’t going to play La Grange, so we tried to keep it as La Grange-focused as possible. The hard thing about it is since August 7, we’ve been preparing for La Grange. Then you spend all that time preparing for that first football game, and then it’s done and you have to prepare for somebody totally different. We felt we were pretty ready for La Grange, then it just kind of dropped out on us.”
On Monday, September 4, a new week seemingly brought new energy. According to Walker, Monday’s practice was the best he’d seen all season from the Panthers.
“We’re glad this week got here,” Walker said. “I think it’s brought back some normalcy, some routines in which I thrive on and I know the kids thrive on when we get into a routine. It’s been hard. It’s been rough on the kids. Like I said, we kind of got up and have been preaching La Grange, La Grange, La Grange, then it fell through and we were all kind of let down, then we have to try to build back up, but the excitement’s back. They now know that there’s no hurricane in the gulf, and we’re going to kick off this week, whether people like it or not.”
While a week-long delay poses some concerns, namely experience and conditioning, it can also provide a spark. Walker said his team looked refreshed and “had their legs back underneath them” after a full weekend off.
Despite not having a game the first week of the season, Walker is confident that his team is conditioned well enough to hang with La Vernia this Friday night. He is, however, aware of the fact that La Vernia has already had an opportunity to get out the “first-game jitters,” while the Panthers haven’t.
“We’ll see Friday night, but I think we’re okay conditioning-wise,” Walker said. “We don’t have that many going both ways, but it’s hard to duplicate a game. It’s just that game experience. We did run a little bit (last week), but I don’t know if we ran enough to equal a game. They’re one up on us as far as conditioning and getting all the bugs out and all that stuff that you’re going to get, like first-game jitters and all that kind of stuff to go along with the first game, but we’ll make the best of it.”
After two-plus years away from the game to focus on family, Walker has waited longer than anybody else in that locker room for game one. While he’s excited to get back on the field, his lack of a normal football routine over the last few years makes a week-long delay feel like just another week. For his players, he’s a bit more concerned.
“As coaches, we learn to adapt,” he said. “I can’t ever remember not having a first game, but I can remember first games where there was lightning and you’re in the locker room more than you’re out on the field and that kind of stuff, but we adapt a little bit easier. For me, it’s not too hard because I forgot what the norm is. We’re ready to get out there. You’ve worked for four weeks for a game, then it gets dropped on you. We’re itching to get out there and show them what we we’re capable of doing. It’s been hard on everybody, but I think more so on the kids, because I’m not working nearly as hard as they are.”
La Vernia dropped their first game of the season last Friday night to a solid Wimberley team by a final score of 49-13, but Walker doesn’t expect Friday’s matchup with the Bears to be a cakewalk. The Panthers got the best of them last season by a final score of 30-0, but Walker is under the impression that La Vernia is much improved.
“They went out and got ahead on Wimberley. They scored on them, but then boom, boom, boom, Wimberley big-played them,” Walker said. “Scouts are saying (La Vernia) is a lot better than they were last year. On film, you can see they’re a lot better than they were last year.”
One of La Vernia’s biggest offensive threats is their quarterback, junior Clayton Chadwick, who Walker has seen display breakaway speed on film.
“They’re spreading it out now and throwing it. They’ve got a real deal quarterback,” Walker said. “He’s scary. When he broke against Canyon Lake, when he broke against Wimberley, nobody could touch him. I mean, he’s gone. They’ve got a good scat back, they’ve got capable wide receivers, and defensively, they fly to the ball. It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
Defensively, La Vernia struggled to guard big plays on the outside against Wimberley, but, as Panther fans know, that’s not typically Liberty Hill’s game. For that reason, Walker expects Friday’s game to be a closer contest than the Bears’ game against the Texans last week.
“Wimberley big-played them on the outside with the passing game on the edges, and they didn’t have an answer for that,” Walker said, “but we don’t do that, so they match up better with us. It’s going to be a good football game. We definitely can’t look past them. It’s going to be a challenge for us. It’s big for everybody to get started on the right foot and play a game that we know we can play.”
During the Panthers’ preseason, Walker’s focus for his team was on speed and physicality. Going into week one, that doesn’t change.
“We don’t worry about who comes out of the other locker room,” Walker said. “We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get better at every position on every snap. If we do that, everything else takes care of itself. We’ve got a long way to go, but sometimes the lights come on and the kids raise their level of play, and we haven’t seen that. It’s going to be good to see how the lights affect us and how hard we play from start to finish, because we haven’t gotten to do that.”
Walker has been waiting for this Friday’s game for a long, long time. After serving as the Panthers’ Offensive Coordinator for eight years prior to his time with Rogers and a two-year hiatus from football, this Friday night will likely be an emotional one for him.
“No doubt, there will be a little emotion,” he said. “Coach (Brandon) Terry played on that last team that I coached here, and he was saying, ‘Coach, we’re on a 24-game win streak at Liberty Hill.’ When I left, we were on a 24-game win streak, so I haven’t lost in Liberty Hill in a long time as a coach, but that’s the past. With everything that’s gone on in my life, I really focus on the day. We’re focused on today. I haven’t even really looked that much toward Friday and what it’s going to be like when we come out of the locker room. Our expectations are right where they were in 2008, so none of that’s going to change.”
Walker and the Panthers will have an opportunity to improve upon that 24-game win streak this Friday night at Panther Stadium at 7:30 p.m.