Panthers pound Chargers, advance in playoffs
By Scott Akanewich
The last time the Panthers of Liberty Hill stood on the sidelines at Gupton Stadium in Cedar Park, they were on the visitors’ side, absorbing a devastating season-ending playoff loss to Lampasas.
Fast-forward over a year and this time the Purple-and-Gold found itself on the opposite side of both the field and the score in a 41-0 defeat of Boerne Champion in a Class 5A second-round playoff contest on Friday night.
Blake Simpson carried the ball 15 times for 175 yards, as the Panthers racked up 487 yards in all on the ground, including eight rushes for 117 yards and three touchdowns for quarterback Charlie Calabretta on the evening.
However, the story of the game was yet another exquisite display by the Liberty Hill defense, who kept a potent Chargers offense listless throughout in posting its seventh consecutive shutout.
Once again, junior linebacker Andon Thomas led the way for the
Purple Reign and said another zero on the scoreboard is simply what he and his defensive mates strive for every time they take the field.
“It’s the goal for every game,” he said. “We just have to perform and I felt we performed really well, executed as well as you could and I’m just proud of all my guys on defense.”
As far as the Panthers’ offense went, it certainly didn’t take very long for Calabretta and company to get clicking.
After Champion received the kickoff and were forced into a 3-and-out by the Liberty Hill defense, the offense took over for the first time at its own 29-yard line and that’s when Simpson went to work, taking a handoff and rumbling 58 yards down the left sideline on the Panthers’ first play from scrimmage of the evening, all the way down to the Champion 12-yard line.
Fellow senior running back Trey Seward scored on a 12-yard run two plays later and Liberty Hill quickly had a 7-0 advantage with only 1:36 having elapsed since the kickoff.
Surprisingly, those were the only points put on the board the entire opening period, as the Chargers and junior quarterback Karson Kaiser failed to generate any rhythm on offense early on, until they managed to mount a 10-play drive across midfield into Liberty Hill territory before Kaiser looked long down the left sideline on a 2nd-and-10 from the Panthers’ 29, only for the pass to be intercepted by senior Bryce Rampy, giving the ball back to Liberty Hill’s offense.
After a rare 3-and-out by the Panthers’ offense, Champion got the ball back and after Kaiser completed a 15-yard pass to wideout Ryan Brandon, the sky fell for the signal-caller, as he was brought down behind the line by Thomas and defensive lineman Lloyd Johnson for a 2-yard loss, then threw incomplete on the next play before Johnson once again brought the hammer down with a hit on him as he was getting a third-down pass away, resulting in an incompletion and another Chargers punt.
Liberty Hill then embarked on one of its classic, time-using, distance-gaining drives, moving the ball from its own 47 down to the Champion 15, where Ethan Minix split the uprights with a field goal and a seeming 10-0 lead.
But, not so fast.
Champion had jumped offside on the kick, which awarded the Panthers with a 1st-and-goal from the 10 before Simpson pounded his way in from a yard out two plays later and a 14-0 lead.
Usually taking points off the board is coaching cardinal sin, but Liberty Hill interim head coach Kent Walker said the decision was based on keeping the ball away from the Champion offense that much longer.
“As a defensive coach, you want time to tick off the clock when you’re dealing with such an explosive offense,” he said.
For the second week in a row, the Panthers put the game virtually out of reach in the second quarter.
After having scored 35 points in the second stanza in last week’s 51-0 home victory over Glenn, Liberty Hill crossed the goal line twice and cashed in a Minix field goal for a 17-point haul, which brought the score to 24-0 at the half.
On the first play of the drive leading up to Minix’ kick, Calabretta took the snap, tucked the ball under his arm and raced 64 yards down the near sideline on a keeper, cutting the ball back once he got inside the 10, only to finally be chased down by Champion defenders.
Included in the onslaught – in addition to Simpson’s score on the opening play of the period, freshman Noah Long further staked his claim for a starting spot in the Panthers’ backfield next season with a 59-yard scoring sprint up the middle following another forced 3-and-out by the defense.
According to Walker, both Long and senior Bryant Amsler continued to do yeoman’s work in the absence of senior fullback Eric De La Cruz, who missed his second straight contest due to a quarantine.
“Noah did a great job for us – he just has so much speed,” said Walker. “Both him and Bryant are all about the team.”
Liberty Hill received the ball to begin the second half of play and wasted no time in adding to its already dominant lead.
Simpson’s first carry of the second half was almost as spectacular as his opening attempt in the first – a 35-yard jaunt, which moved the ball to the Champion 30, after which he and Seward traded off runs until Minix hit another field goal, this one from 21 yards out and a 27-0 lead.
After running roughshod over the Chargers’ defense earlier, Calabretta had another go after Carter Hudson had picked off an errant Kaiser pass, only this time he found the end zone on a 32-yard run and a 34-0 lead after three.
Calabretta added his second score of the game with a 1-yard dive at the end of a 14-play, 67-yard drive to close the offense out for the evening, but the defense still had some business to conduct in preserving the shutout.
After Champion had advanced into Liberty Hill’s side of the field – a drive which included an 18-yard completion which was its longest play of the game – Aaron Brewer busted in on Kaiser, sacking him and stripping the ball before recovering it himself and it was officially a done deal.
In addition to Simpson’s 175 rushing yards and Calabretta’s 117, Long ran for 118 on nine carries and Seward added 73 on 17 attempts in thoroughly ending the Chargers’ season.
The game marked the second contest without former Liberty Hill head coach Jeff Walker, who passed away from cancer on Dec. 1 and his brother is still keenly aware of the influence the late coach had on his players.
“Oh, it’s awesome,” he said. “You know, Jeff trained these young men and helped build them into the young men they are today and they’re doing a great job of just carrying that on and showing their toughness.”
Walker said he will continue to carry his brother’s spirit onto the sidelines with him.
“It’s still emotional,” he said. “I look up the sky and hopefully my brother’s up there watching it and I know how proud he would be of these young men and that kind of just keeps me going and keeps me excited and these kids just keep doing everything they’re supposed to do – they do a great job of taking it day by day and trying to get better each and every day.”
Thomas echoed Walker’s sentiment in sizing up the mindset of he and his teammates as they march on in the postseason.
“Yeah, I would say he’s our main inspiration,” he said. “He brought us all together and I know he’s giving us strength from above and we just keep on going.”
Liberty Hill (10-0) will next face Rouse (10-1), who defeated Mercedes, 57-28, on Friday to advance to a third-round matchup with the Panthers in the regional round, with date, time and site yet-to-be determined.