Panthers clinch district title with win over Mustangs
By Scott Akanewich
Andon Thomas can do many things well on a football field.
Liberty Hill’s senior linebacker can now add rushing to his extensive resume after picking up 15 yards on two carries in the Panthers’ 21-14 home win over Marble Falls, which clinched the district championship.
However, it was the carry which got away that nearly cost the Purple-and-Gold in their quest to claim another trophy.
Thomas fumbled on 1st-and-goal from the Mustangs 3-yard line with a chance to go up 21-0 in the second quarter, only for the ball to come loose from his grasp.
“I was so mad after I fumbled,” said Thomas. “I know it’s hard, but I needed to have a short memory.”
In a battle of teams who both run the Slot-T offense, Marble Falls looked as if its game plan was to take the air out of the ball.
After receiving the opening kickoff on their own 25-yard line, the visitors managed to take 4:25 off the clock while running 10 plays – but gaining only 28 yards before being forced to punt.
The strategy immediately backfired when Panthers sophomore Noah Long took the handoff on the home team’s first play from scrimmage and topped the Mustangs’ offensive production in a single fell swoop with a 29-yard run.
When Liberty Hill found itself facing a 3rd-and-7 on the Marble Falls 49-yard line three plays later, Panthers quarterback Reese Vickers dropped back to pass and found Joe Pitchford for a 44-yard gain which took the ball all the way down inside the 10 where it was 1st-and-goal from the 7-yard line.
Following a Long six-yard scamper which got the ball on the doorstep, Pitchford rumbled in for the game’s first points and a 7-0 lead.
But, those would be the only points of the opening quarter, as each side had combined for only three possessions and it seemed as if the Mustangs’ tactics of keeping the Panthers’ offense on the sidelines as much as possible was beginning to pay dividends after all.
Long was having none of it, though, as he took the ball and set off on a spectacular 74-yard touchdown run down the right sideline to double his team’s lead to 14-0 only 12 seconds into the second quarter.
Following Long’s score, Liberty Hill pulled a trick out of the hat with a short kickoff into an unmanned area of the field and recovered what amounted to a long onside kick, with the Panthers’ offense setting up shop at the Marble Falls 34-yard line.
However, the home side was unable to capitalize on its good fortune after Thomas’ turnover prevented the Panthers from gaining a three-touchdown lead.
The Mustangs finally put points on the board with a 38-yard scoring strike from quarterback Jake Becker to Roberto Adame to halve the deficit to 14-7 with only 1:20 left until halftime.
On the ensuing possession on a 2nd-and-5 from the Panthers’ 20, Vickers handed off to Pitchford and the former backup quarterback found Long with a perfectly-placed pass for a 36-yard gain and a first down.
Liberty Hill supporters far and wide must’ve been holding their heads in disbelief when the Panthers completed yet another pass on the same series, this one from Vickers to Long for an eight-yard touchdown in making the score 21-7, which is where it stood at the half after Reid Bynum stormed the Mustangs’ backfield and sacked Becker on the final play before time ran out.
Panthers head coach Kent Walker said the forward pass is something he isn’t afraid to use in certain situations.
“We work on our passing game all the time,” said Walker. “We don’t show that, but we work on it all the time and we expect it to be there when we call on it because people are so geared up for our run.”
Pitchford fumbled on the third play of the third quarter and Marble Falls then drove all the way to the Liberty Hill 3-yard line, but were unable to score when senior safety Aaron Brewer defended a pass from Becker which was on its way into the hands of a waiting receiver in the end zone on 4th-and-goal.
However, the Mustangs’ defense remained resolute in keeping the Panthers off the scoreboard in the third period of play, while their offense pieced together an 11-play, 53-yard scoring drive which ended with Adame getting his second touchdown of the game with a five-yard run to make it a seven-point contest at 21-14.
The game then settled into a defensive battle and after the sides had exchanged punts, the Panthers drove to the Mustangs’ 19 before sending senior kicker Ethan Minix out for a 36-yard field goal which would’ve made it a two-possession game, but the ball clanked off the left upright and was no good.
After moving the ball all the way to the Liberty Hill 29 with no timeouts and only seconds remaining, Becker was left to heave a desperation pass into the end zone which was broken up by senior Kade McMahan and victory was at last secured and with it a district title.
After entering the fray on the offensive side of the line for the first time in his varsity career, Thomas said he was a caught a bit off-guard by the speed of the proceedings.
“It was a lot faster than I thought,” he said. “But, carrying the ball feels great.”
Thomas credited the Mustangs for presenting he and his teammates with a proper tussle.
“Props to Marble Falls – they came out and played hard,” he said. “It was great to come out here and have a dogfight like this because going through adversity will make us better.”
“I think a game like this might help us down the road,” he said. “But, right now I’m still frustrated with our play tonight. I thought we should’ve gone up 21-0 there and it turns into a different football game.”
As for Thomas’ exploits in all three phases of the game, Walker has run out of superlatives in describing his star.
“Andon can do it all,” he said. “He could play all 11 positions on the field – he’s just a special young man.”
Long led Liberty Hill with 12 carries for 135 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns in breaking the 1,000-yard mark for the season, while the Panthers had 88 passing yards in putting up 371 yards of offense.
Liberty Hill (6-2, 4-0) will next play at Navarro on Oct. 28 following a bye week, then return to host Northeast in the regular-season finale on Nov. 5.
Walker said due to the fact both teams play the same offense, the contest became a last-man standing affair and it was his side who came out on the other side.
“Games like this become a toughness battle,” he said. “The tougher team won tonight.”