PANTHER PROFILE: Welcome to the show, Hunter Oncken

Running back Hunter Oncken (#46) takes off on one of his 18 carries. Oncken finished the game with 177 yards and a touchdown. (Alex Rubio Photo)

Running back Hunter Oncken (#46) takes off on one of his 18 carries. Oncken finished the game with 177 yards and a touchdown. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By Mike Schoeffel

Last week’s game against Anderson was a coming out party for Hunter Oncken.

Oncken, a junior running back in his first season as a varsity player, burst onto the scene in head coach Jerry Vance’s widely-renowned run-first scheme last week against Anderson. Oncken entered the night as a minimal part of the offensive game plan, but ended it as the Panthers’ leading rusher, reeling off 177 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.

Liberty Hill won, 41-18. It was Vance’s 150th career win with the Liberty Hill program.

“It was humbling,” said Oncken. “To be a part of the program and have a positive impact on the outcome is what I’ve always wanted. I’ve worked hard for it, and to be a contributor to the success of the team is a huge bonus.”

Oncken comes from a football pedigree. His father, John Oncken, was a running back at Katy High School in 1994 when the Tigers reached the state championship. John went on to join the program at Sul Ross State University, where he won an American Southwest Conference title in the late ‘90s.

The younger Oncken has his sights set on the college level, too.

“For that to happen, I have to finish strong on the field and in the classroom, too,” he said. “My goal is for recruiters to be impressed with my academics and leadership as much as they are with my performance on the field.”

Oncken first took to the field nine years ago as a player in the Liberty Hill youth system, starting in the Centex league, which eventually morphed into the Hill Country. He’s spent most of his time as a linebacker and fullback, working his way up through the ranks to become a contributing member of the Panthers’ varsity program.

Which has been Oncken’s goal all along, of course.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “It’s what every player looks forward to. Coach Vance has high expectations and every player works hard to meet and exceed those expectations. We want it not only for ourselves but for our team and community.”

Vance has witnessed Oncken’s development first-hand.

“Ever since Hunter was a freshman he has steadily progressed,” said the coach. “He has had two incredible offseason and summer weight workouts. He is a dedicated young man who has worked himself into being a vital contributor.”

It’s no secret that Liberty Hill employs a unique offensive system — the slot-T — which focuses on the deployment of multiple ball carriers instead of one stud running back. On any given week, a new player might step up and be the hero. It’s that sense of being part of something greater than yourself that has driven the Panthers’ football program since Vance took over in the early 2000’s.

It’s also what motivates kids like Oncken to get out there and be somebody.

“It’s fun and challenging,” Oncken said of playing for Liberty Hill. “It takes a big team effort for the slot-T to be effective…It can be a bit stressful because everyone has to do their part for every play to work. It’s important for each carrier to pull their weight and do what is expected.”

Now that Oncken has tasted a morsel of success, he’s aiming his sights even higher for the rest of his time at Liberty Hill. He’ll graduate in 2018, but before then, he has some pointed goals he’d like to accomplish alongside his Panther teammates.

“I would like to go to state and be a 2,000-yard rusher,” he said. “But first, we have to take one game at a time. With hard work and discipline, the rest will come.

“My plan,” he added, “is to keep my head up, my feet moving, and hold the rope.”

Oncken and the Panthers (3-1) are currently on a bye week. They will travel to Waco on Oct. 7 to face vaunted La Vega (5-0), a team that defeated Liberty Hill — 6-0 in overtime — in the first round of 4A Division I regionals last fall.