Panthers run roughshod in rout of Rouse

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By Scott Akanewich

PFLUGERVILLE — Last season at this time, Joe Pitchford was on the wrong end of Liberty Hill’s 56-42 Class 5A Division II regional quarterfinal victory over Rouse as a freshman on the Raiders’ squad that was eliminated at the hands of the Purple-and-Gold.

A year later, the now-sophomore Panthers running back was instrumental in dealing his old team a 56-33 setback at the same stage of the state playoffs while on the opposite sideline at The Pfield in Pflugerville on Friday night.

“There was definitely some added motivation because it’s my old school,” said Pitchford, who piled up 229 yards on 22 carries, including scoring runs of four and 64 yards to go with a 49-yard touchdown pass on a fake punt. “All the credit goes to my lineman.”

Liberty Hill head coach Kent Walker had nothing but kind words for Pitchford, as well as his backfield mate, senior Grady Flinn, in the aftermath of his team’s victory.

“Joe just had a great game,” said Walker. “Both he and Grady have been rotating for us at halfback, but Joe stepped up and had an outstanding game.”

Following its customary deferral after winning the coin toss, the Panthers soon had the ball in their hands anyway after Rouse quarterback Mason Shorb completed a pass to Justin Cannon on a 3rd-and-6 play from the Raiders’ 33-yard line – on what would’ve been a first-down catch – only for the him to fumble the ball away and be recovered by Liberty Hill senior linebacker Reid Bynum, who pounced on the loose ball.

After Pitchford gained six and 38 yards, respectively, on his first two attempts of the evening, it was Noah Long who scampered in from four yards out for a 7-0 Liberty Hill lead after less than two minutes had elapsed on the game clock.

However, Shorb – who passed for 408 yards and four touchdowns in the teams’ matchup last season – was anything but gun shy on Rouse’s next possession, first completing a pass to Troy Oliver for 10 yards before hooking up with wideout Jalen Becerra on a 61-yard scoring pass to tie the game at 7-7.

Rouse then took the lead on a 12-yard strike from Shorb to Nicholas Hudson, but a failed extra point left the score at 13-7 in favor of the Raiders after one period of play.

The Panthers had a secret weapon up their sleeve, though, in senior linebacker Andon Thomas, who made an appearance in Liberty Hill’s offensive backfield and powered his way into the end zone from a yard out to finish off a 13-play, 57-yard drive and a 14-13 advantage after Ethan Minix added the extra point.

But, Shorb bounced right back with back-to-back touchdown passes to Oliver for 71 and 25 yards, respectively, the first of which came on the heels of Thomas being stopped just short of a first down on a fake punt.

At that point in the proceedings, the Raiders led, 27-14, when the Panthers got the ball back with just over four minutes remaining until halftime.
On the twelfth play of a drive which had begun in their own territory, Liberty Hill quarterback Reese Vickers dropped back and found senior Kasyn Herman in the end zone with a 13-yard touchdown pass in closing the gap to 27-21.

Finally, with the clock running down to zero, Panthers senior safety Aaron Brewer made a touchdown-saving tackle inside the Liberty Hill 5-yard-line when a last-second lateral off a completion almost sprung the Raiders a surprise score.

Pitchford scored the first of his two touchdowns on the night on the opening series of the second half at the end of an eight-play, 51-yard drive in giving the Panthers a 28-27 lead.

Following that, the Liberty Hill defense finally began to clamp down on Shorb and his stable of receivers and stopped the Raiders on a 4th-and-1 attempt in the red zone to give the Panthers back the ball on downs.

On the ensuing possession after Flinn, Logan Dyer and Long took turns testing the Rouse defense, Pitchford broke free on a 64-yard jaunt and Liberty Hill had a 35-27 advantage.

Once again, though, Rouse was resilient as Shorb threw his fourth touchdown pass of the game – and second to Hudson – from four yards out in redusing the Raiders’ deficit to 35-33, which was where the score was entering the fourth quarter.

However, those were the last points Rouse would score as the Liberty Hill defense turned the screws even tighter in shutting out the Raiders and their prolific offense over the final 12 minutes of the contest.

Meanwhile, while Rouse’s offensive unit sputtered in the final period, Liberty Hill’s offense continued to add to its lead, including a trick play on which Thomas dropped back to punt on fourth down, only to pass the ball to Pitchford, who found a wide-open Kade McMahan down the right sideline for a 49-yard touchdown and a 42-33 lead.

Walker said he and his coaches had been waiting for just the right opportunity to use the gadget play.

“It’s something (assistant) Coach (Carlos) Garza drew up,” he said. “We’ve been running it all year in practice and we pulled it out tonight because we felt like we needed it.”

As far as his side’s ability to largely shut the Raiders down in the second half after having been burned with the long ball early, Walker chalked it up to a couple of factors.

“We made a few adjustments at halftime,” he said. “But, our kids just stepped up in the second half – that’s the bottom line – they played much better in the second half defensively.”

After Thomas’ second one-yard scoring plunge to make it a 50-33 game, senior Lloyd Johnson, Jr. broke through the Raiders’ line and sacked Shorb for a loss of nine yards before the junior signal-caller scrambled out of the pocket on a first-down play at the Panthers’ 40 only to lose the handle on the ball, which was recovered by Thomas.

Long finished off the scoring with a 58-yard touchdown run on Liberty Hill’s next possession to close the scoring.

In addition to Pitchford’s season-high 229 yards, Long ran for 82 yards on 18 carries, while Thomas rushed nine times for 51 yards.

Liberty Hill (11-2) will next face Alamo Heights (13-0), which defeated Marble Falls in its quarterfinal by a score of 10-7.

But, for the moment, Walker was pleased to be able to bask in the glow of this week’s victory with his players and coaches – even showing a side not seen often, he said.

“I told the kids after the game, I don’t smile a whole lot and they give me a hard time about it,” said Walker. “But, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face after the game tonight because I’m just so proud of our kids, our coaches and our community – it was awesome tonight.”

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