Panthers shocked in season opener, 12-7

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By Scott Akanewich

Safe to say it was enough of a shock for Liberty Hill to lose its season opener to visiting Ellison on Friday night at Panther Stadium.

However, it was the manner in which events transpired during the home team’s 12-7 defeat at the hands of the Class 6A Eagles that proved almost too much to handle for the Purple-and-Gold faithful.

Plagued by penalties and turnovers all night long, the Panthers could muster only a Noah Long 14-yard touchdown run with 1:03 remaining in the game to avoid a shutout loss.

Liberty Hill head coach Kent Walker was as perplexed as anyone as to how his team could play so poorly – but laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of himself and his coaching staff.

“I don’t think we had them ready to play tonight as coaches,” he said. “It was a frustrating night – we never got any rhythm going offensively.”

Most galling to Walker were the 13 penalties the Panthers committed on the evening, along with six fumbles, with no mistake being more costly than the botched snap on an Ethan Minix 43-yard field-goal attempt in the second quarter, which was returned for an Ellison touchdown by 6-foot-5, 265-pound Eagles linebacker Devontae Tezino, increasing the visitors’ advantage to 12-0 with 5:31 left in the half.

Walker attributed his team’s blunders on the night to a lack of focus.

“We pride ourselves here on being disciplined,” he said. “So, that’s just a mental thing.”

After the Panthers had deferred the opening kickoff after winning the coin flip, Liberty Hill’s defense stepped up in forcing Ellison into a three-and-out on the opening possession of the contest, setting up the offense on its own 35-yard line.

However, an 11-play, 45-yard drive produced no points after a Minix miss from 30 yards out, which set the tone for the offensive ineptitude that was to follow.

But, first, it was the Eagles’ offense that flashed a rare bit of brilliance on a night when both squads’ units floundered, when Ellison quarterback Kason Sims hit wideout Dantrell Sterling for a 23-yard gain on a second-down pass for a first down, but on the next set of downs, the Liberty Hill defense once again came up with a stop on a 4th-and-2 run play.

The Panthers’ offense once again failed to capitalize, though, as senior quarterback Will Szewczyk fumbled for a 2-yard loss on the next play – only to be recovered by the home side – before being forced to punt at the end of a three-and-out.

Ellison proved just as feeble offensively, matching mistakes with the Panthers and the opening quarter ended scoreless.

The next Liberty Hill possession was no better, as a pair of false start penalties were assessed in addition to another fumble – again recovered – before another punt.

In a game in which both teams’ defenses dominated, the Eagles eked out just enough offense to prevail – in large part due to a flea-flicker that fooled the Panthers’ defense, resulting in a sizable gain down the left sideline before Sims hooked up with Zy’Aire King for a 22-yard scoring pass to give the Eagles a 6-0 lead after a 2-point conversion failed.

Gavin Salinas returned the ensuing kickoff 50 yards to put the Panthers’ offense in business at the Ellison 25, but on a 3rd-and-9, Szewczyk dropped back to attempt Liberty Hill’s first pass of the season and it didn’t turn out well, as the signal-caller was sacked for 7-yard loss.

Things only went from bad to worse on the ensuing field-goal attempt, as that was when the errant snap was run all the way back for the score that made it a 12-0 game, which was where the contest remained at halftime.

As is the Panthers’ custom, they began the second half with the ball after deferring the opening kick, but immediately shot themselves in the foot, when on the opening play of the third quarter, they were called for a chop block on an 8-yard gain by Long, shortly followed thereafter by a holding call two plays later, then false start penalties on back-to-back snaps – making it four penalties in six plays – before once again forcing senior Andon Thomas back into punt formation.

Following a scoreless third period, goose eggs remained on the second-half scoreboard until Long’s late scoring run – on which the sophomore fumbled on his way into the end zone before recovering – for the Panthers’ only points of the game.

Long’s score did punctuate a Panthers’ drive that lasted 20 plays and covered 85 yards – more resembling what Liberty Hill supporters are accustomed to seeing from their squad – but by that point in the proceedings, it was far too little, too late in leaving Walker left to assess his team’s effort in the aftermath.

“No question, this one really stings,” he said. “I feel like we let the entire community down.”

Long carried 21 times for 102 yards and a touchdown.

Despite the offensive struggles on the evening, Walker had praise for the Panthers’ defense, which allowed only six points, as they kept the home team in the game.

“I think we played fairly well defensively,” he said. “We had two goal-line stands.”

However, it was the undisciplined play of his offense that still had him exasperated long after the clock had run out.

“Tonight, we were making mistakes we shouldn’t make in Liberty Hill,” said Walker. “I don’t know the how or why – maybe it’s having 11 new starters on offense – I’m just at a loss for words.”

Liberty Hill (0-1) will next host another Class 6A team, Del Valle, next Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Walker acknowledged in closing his team is nowhere near where it needs to be and the clock is already ticking.

“We were a very undisciplined team tonight,” he said. “By Week 10, we need to be a much better football team than we are right now. We have a long way to go and a short time to get there.”

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