LHHS overmatched vs fifth-ranked China Spring

Fullback Hunter Oncken (#46) finds the end zone in Liberty Hill’s loss to China Spring Saturday. Oncken finished the season as the Panthers’ only 1,000+ yard rusher. (Alex Rubio Photo)

Fullback Hunter Oncken (#46) finds the end zone in Liberty Hill’s loss to China Spring Saturday. Oncken finished the season as the Panthers’ only 1,000+ yard rusher. (Alex Rubio Photo)


BELTON — The first quarter of the Panthers’ final playoff game was like something out of a nightmare. Less than five minutes into the first quarter against China Spring, the Panthers found themselves down 21-0.

On China Spring’s first play of the game, quarterback Cutter Haigood, who tore up the Panther defense last time the two teams faced each other, ripped off a 74-yard touchdown run to put the Cougars up 7-0.

The Panthers were unable to get anything going on their next possession, after which the Cougars capitalized on yet another massive run, this time resulting in a 60-yard touchdown run for Keaton Dudik.

The nightmare continued as China Spring’s ensuing kickoff was muffed by Liberty Hill and recovered by the Cougars. Haigood scored on another run, this time from 20 yards out, to give the Cougars a 21-0 lead with 7:07 still left to play in the first quarter.

From that point on, Liberty Hill was on the wrong end of a game of catch up, something that’s hard to accomplish with an offense like the Panthers that relies so heavily on the running game.

According to Liberty Hill Head Coach Jerry Vance, China Spring’s formula was pretty simple.

“They’re fast. We couldn’t catch them. They scored touchdowns. We didn’t,” Vance said after the game.

The Panthers were able to put together a solid drive on their next possession, mixing it up through the air and on the ground. Liberty Hill quarterback Garrett Wright found Dalton Phifer for a first down through the air, followed by a big run by Freddie White and another pass to Carter Ware to get the Panthers in scoring position. Hunter Oncken punched in a touchdown from the goal line to bring the score to 21-7.

The Panther defense had the Cougars in a third-and-long situation twice on China Spring’s ensuing possession, but gave up a 35-yard first down run by Dudik and a 17-yard touchdown run by Haigood on each of them. The Panthers found themselves down 28-7.

Liberty Hill muffed yet another kickoff in the second quarter, but they were able to recover at their own 17-yard line. Wright found running back Reid Sanders for a 15-yard gain through the air, followed by big runs from Logan Hester and Freddie White to set up a 37-yard field goal attempt for Michael Shipley, which he was unable to connect on.

The Cougars followed up with a 37-yard pass from Haigood to Dudik, two names that sounded like a broken record over the loudspeaker on Saturday, leading to a 41-yard field goal for China Spring at the halftime buzzer to give them a 31-7 lead.

Not much changed after halftime, as the Cougars connected on another long pass to the 2-yard line, after which Cayden Johnson was able to find the end zone for the Cougars on a 2-yard run to give China Spring a 38-7 lead.

After a couple first down runs by White and Oncken, the Panthers were forced to punt on fourth down. The Cougars scored on yet another huge running play on just the second play of the drive, as Dudik took off for a 79-yard touchdown to give China Spring a 45-7 lead.

The Panthers’ next drive looked like it might end in a field goal, but they tried some trickery instead, attempting a fake field goal pass that fell incomplete for a turnover on downs.

The Liberty Hill defense was finally able to force China Spring to punt, after which the Panthers were able to put some more points on the board with a 45-yard touchdown run by Oncken, bringing the score to 45-14.

China Spring’s Tyrick James reeled in a touchdown reception with 6:02 to play to rub some salt in the wound, but Liberty Hill’s Freddie White followed it up with a 73-yard touchdown run of his own to bring the score to 52-21, which ended up being the final score.

Coach Vance echoed his sentiments from the last time the two teams faced off, crediting China Spring’s sheer size and speed as the biggest reasons for their success against the Panthers on Saturday.

“I don’t know if there’s anything I can do about them being bigger and faster than us,” Vance said. “That was a very good football team. Sometimes you run into that. They were just better. They were physically bigger, and you can’t coach that. That’s just something that happens.”

Despite a disappointing loss to end the season, Coach Vance was impressed with his team’s resilience throughout the game. Instead of giving up after going down big in the first quarter, the Panthers continued to play hard, finishing on a high note with a couple touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

“I think our coaches did a wonderful job coaching the kids,” Vance said. “We never quit. We never bowed down to anybody. We kept fighting. It might have been like a Chihuahua eating on your ankle, but I was really proud of how resilient our kids were.”

China Spring will face another Liberty Hill district opponent in Waco La Vega for their next playoff game. China Spring is ranked 5th in Conference 4A Division 1, and La Vega is ranked 2nd, which is a level of competition that Coach Vance has never seen in the same district since he’s been a head coach.

“Thank you, UIL,” Vance said with a chuckle. “We’ve had a number one team, like Burnet, in our same district, but never have I been in a district where you had two number two, number three, and at one point we were number 10, in the same district. Maybe the UIL is just trying to get us ready for 5A.”

The Panthers finished their season with an 8-4 overall record.