Panthers look to tame Bears in playoff opener

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By Scott Akanewich

One of the perks of being district champions is the chance to host a playoff game in the opening round of the postseason and Liberty Hill is taking full advantage with a contest against Bastrop on Friday in the bi-district round of the Class 5A Division II state playoffs.

The Panthers (8-2, 6-0) enter the game on a six-game winning streak, while the Bears (4-6, 4-3) are currently riding a four-game winning run of their own, one that propelled them into the fourth and final playoff spot in the district standings after having gotten off to an 0-3 start to league play.

Bastrop features a balanced offensive attack which rushed for 1,811 yards this season, while gaining 1,168 through the air, led by 6-foot-5 junior quarterback Seth Mouser, who was 71-of-130 for 800 yards and five touchdowns to go with one interception.

The Bears also have junior running back Demire Thompson, who rushed for 1,262 yards on 163 carries and nine touchdowns on the season. Yet another junior, Julius Baynard, was Bastrop’s leading receiver with 25 catches for 347 yards and three scores.

According to head coach Kent Walker, the Bears are peaking at the right time.

“They’ve gotten a lot better throughout the year and are coming in on a high note,” said Walker. “They have a quarterback who can get their receivers the ball and does a good job of managing their offense. On defense, they’re starting to play much better, so they’re rolling at the right time.”

Managing the Panthers’ offense will be junior signal-caller Reese Vickers, who has started under center now for the past four games in replacing injured senior starter Will Szewczyk, who was lost for the season with a broken arm.

Although Vickers has shown he has the arm talent to get the ball downfield on occasion, of course, the Purple-and-Gold have once again relied almost exclusively on its running game.

Sophomore Noah Long leads Liberty Hill with 1,237 yards on 136 carries and 18 touchdowns, while junior Logan Dyer has gained 633 yards on 73 attempts and six touchdowns and sophomore Joe Pitchford has run for 502 yards on 66 carries with 11 touchdowns since being moved to the backfield from his backup quarterback position earlier in the season.

However, Walker added despite the confidence he has in his current backs, the absence of the graduated Blake Simpson, who led the Panthers in rushing last season has left an enormous void to fill – especially now that the playoffs are upon his team.

“We rode Blake last year – he really carried us – especially in the last four playoff games,” he said of a playoff run that saw the current Texas State player rack up mind-blowing numbers that included 1,174 yards and 17 touchdowns. “But, we still have others like Logan Dyer, Joe Pitchford and Grady Flinn and we might not have Blake Simpson anymore, but we have Noah Long.”

The numbers certainly back up Walker’s claim, as the Panthers are currently averaging a healthy 350.2 rushing yards per game, although last year’s squad produced 434.8 yards per contest.

Entering the postseason last year, there was much concern on the part of Panthers coaches and players as to whether or not they would be ready to handle rugged playoff competition after a soft district schedule.

Liberty Hill answered that question with a remarkable run all the way to the state semifinals before falling to Crosby, 62-61, in overtime.

But, this season a different team enters the fray, which causes concern for Walker as he waits to see how the squad will react when the pressure is immediately turned up right on the heels of a stretch that saw them outscore district opposition by a 317-37 margin, with the only true test being a 21-14 home victory over Marble Falls, which came down to the final play of the game.

“Against these teams we’ll be playing, the speed of the game is much faster,” said Walker. “But, our kids usually respond well.”

Defensively, the Panthers are led by senior linebacker Andon Thomas, who leads the team with 161 tackles – averaging 16.1 per game – with 23 tackles for loss, while fellow senior linebacker Reid Bynum has added 105 stops on the season in bolstering the group backing up a defensive line led by senior end Lloyd Johnson, Jr.

But, it’s the defensive backfield that worries Walker a bit, as the Panthers have proven vulnerable to giving up some long passes over the course of the campaign.

“Our secondary is going to be tested – we know that,” he said. “But, I feel like we’re in a better position this year as far as that’s concerned and our run defense is really good, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

In fact, if the Panthers advance to the third round, a potential rematch with Rouse looms, which means another meeting with Raiders junior quarterback Mason Shorb, who put up 408 yards passing on the Panthers last year in Liberty Hill’s 56-42 win.

But, the first order of business is Bastrop, the first step in getting back to where they were last season – and perhaps one step further, said Walker.

“I think our kids will play their best,” he said. “This is the time of the year when all their work pays off.”

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