What it takes to find a neutral playoff stadium in Texas

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By Lance Catchings

When it comes to Texas high school football playoffs, travel is inevitable. As the Panthers enter the fourth round of the playoffs, they have had bouts in Giddings, Manor and Bastrop so far.

This Friday against La Vernia, they will travel to Rattler Stadium in San Marcos for the game. Head Coach and Athletic Director Jeff Walker said availability is the biggest determining factor when it comes to where Liberty Hill will lace up against their opponent.

“When it comes to choosing locations, the biggest thing for us is availability,” Walker said. “The first round, it is extremely hard to get stadiums for a lot of people, because teams are not sure if they are in the playoffs, yet, if it comes down to the last game. We typically call places in between the two schools, and there are usually not a lot of them, depending on who you play. There was not a lot between us and Bay City in the first round that comes out equal. The stadiums usually have waiting lists, and you get on them between you and that other city that you’re playing. If you are fortunate enough to win, then you call them and see what it looks like.”

As the Panthers go deeper into the playoffs and more teams are eliminated, stadiums become a little easier to find.

“By this time, there are not near as many teams now left in the playoffs,” he said. “Third round and beyond, it is a lot easier to pick locations, because there are not a lot of teams playing football anymore. The first round when you have four teams out of each district playing, it can be a nightmare. Both coaches meet or talk over the phone, then try to come up with what is best for everybody based on the availability.”

Walker said although some teams like to differ from routine, Liberty Hill prefers to keep things consistent. With that in mind, he always informs his players of their itinerary for the coming week on Saturdays, and they always take the classic LHISD school buses to their destination.

“We just try to keep it simple for our kids and treat it like a road game,” Walker said. “A lot of people will get out early and take charter buses and that type of stuff, but not us. We try to stick to our routine and we take our old yellow dogs. We like to stick to what we normally do. I do like giving the kids a heads up on who, when and where we are playing as soon as I know. I don’t like them guessing on that kind of stuff, so I try to give them that stuff as early as I can. They usually have that information Saturday morning when they come to practice. Everything else we do is just like what we do for road games.”

Each hosting stadium must provide its own staff, announcers and concessions, which can be tough for schools that are in the playoffs, considering their parents, teachers, and coaches often want to be at their own team’s game, rather than working another playoff game, which is why Liberty Hill has not hosted many.

“It comes down to people with stadiums willing to host,” Walker said. “Often, we won’t host at Panther Stadium if we are in the playoffs. It is just too hard to get people to work for it. You must get administrators and announcers and all the other stuff you must put together. Often, those people want to come see you play. I usually call teams that are not in the playoffs, and their coaches are more likely to host.”

The further into the playoffs teams go, often the nicer the venues the coaches will try to find, within reason. With that, however, comes a bigger budget.

“The deeper we get in the playoffs, the nicer we may try to look for, and you’re willing to spend a little bit more money down the road,” Walker said. “It is nice to have the bigger, better and nicer stadiums. We have always told the kids that the further you go, the nicer the stadiums get. That is not always the case, because it still has to do with availability and cost.”

Disagreements do happen between opposing coaches, but they’re rare. Most coaches just want to find the best place in between each city for the players and fans for both sides.

“Usually, it is not a big issue, because both coaches are trying to keep it somewhere in between both places,” Walker said. “We look at cost and distance. Sometimes, we are willing to compromise to get a little nicer stadium at a cheaper cost. When we played Bay City in the first round, I had the Giddings Stadium and the Bay City coach had Waller. Waller is a nice stadium, so I told him to check the price. He called me back and said we’ll go with Giddings, which was much cheaper. The money takes care of all the workers and everything for that night. It’s usually around $3,500 for a stadium, but the price can go much higher than that depending on where you play.”

The Panthers have not played at San Marcos during Walker’s time as a coach at Liberty Hill, but he said the stadium is adequate and fair for both Liberty Hill and La Vernia.

“It is a newer stadium, but it is not extravagant by any means,” he said. “They have a jumbotron and can do replays, but it is not a real big stadium. It is a fair price and in a good location for us and La Vernia.

Kickoff for the State Quarterfinal playoff match will be Saturday at 1 p.m. at San Marcos High School’s Rattler Stadium.

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