Panthers throttle Chargers, 51-14, advance to third round

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By Scott Akanewich

SAN ANTONIO – Perhaps the only drama which unfolded at Farris Stadium in San Antonio on Friday night was whether or not Liberty Hill’s equipment would arrive in time to play its second-round Class 5A Division II playoff game against Boerne Champion after the truck carrying the Panthers’ gear had suffered some roadside issues on the trip south, which delayed its arrival.

Alas, all the helmets and shoulder pads eventually got to their destination safe and sound and Liberty Hill went on to prevail over the Chargers by a score of 51-14 despite an abbreviated warmup precipitated by the gear’s tardiness.

After piling up 519 rushing yards on the evening, the Panthers may want to limit pregame activities from now on, as three Purple-and-Gold backs posted 100-yard games, led by sophomore Noah Long, who racked up 196 yards on 20 carries with a pair of touchdowns.

Liberty Hill head coach Kent Walker, though, said the victory wasn’t as matter-of-fact as it may have seen to the 3,000-plus people in attendance.

“Oh, no, they’re never as easy as they look,” said Walker. “But, our kids played really well tonight and I’m extremely proud of them – that’s a great football team over there in Boerne Champion, so to be able to come out and beat them 51-14 says a lot about our kids.”

After Champion gained one yard on three plays and were forced to punt on the game’s opening possession, the Panthers went to work from their own 24-yard line and after Joe Pitchford picked up six yards on first down, Long took a handoff from quarterback Reece Vickers and sprinted 70 yards down the right sideline for the opening points of the game and after an Ethan Minix extra point, it was 7-0 for the Purple-and-Gold.

The Chargers’ offense didn’t fare much better the second time it got the ball, as Champion senior quarterback Karson Kaiser was off target on a second-down pass, then was intercepted on third down by the Panthers’ Kade McMahan who went high up over the intended receiver to snare the ball at its high point and secure it before tumbling to the ground with a backward somersault to finish the play.

Following back-to-back fruitless series by either side, Liberty Hill set up shop on its own 40-yard line and continued to pound away at the Chargers’ defense, with Long, Pitchford and fullback Logan Dyer all taking turns until Long scored from five yards out to put the cherry on top of an eight-play, 60-yard drive to make it 14-0 with 2:19 left in the first period.

All the while, Liberty Hill’s defense remained undaunted by Champion’s strong-armed signal-caller and four-wide-receiver spread offense.

After the Chargers had picked up 15 yards on the first play of the ensuing series, Kaiser dropped back to pass only to be sacked by Panthers senior defensive end Lloyd Johnson, Jr., who also stripped the ball from Kaiser’s grasp, a fumble which was recovered by Liberty Hill.

Walker said Johnson was back on point after being slowed by a groin injury suffered down the stretch of the regular season.

“LJ had a really good game,” he said. “I thought he looked faster tonight than he has, so I’m excited to see how he progresses through the playoffs.”

This time, it only took three plays for the Panthers to score off the turnover when snior Grady Flinn ran one in from three yards out for a 20-0 lead after a failed extra point.

On the Chargers’ next series, Kaiser was flushed out of the pocket before picking up three yards, but suffered an apparent ankle injury upon being forced out of bounds by Liberty Hill safety Aaron Brewer and didn’t return to the game.

However, sophomore backup Champion quarterback Jordan Ballin hit senior running back Alex Rodriguez with a six-yard scoring pass to put the Chargers on the board and the score was 20-7 with 8:22 left before halftime.

Liberty Hill then embarked on its longest voyage of the evening, with a 12-play, 61-yard drive resulting in a Vickers keeper from a yard out, which was followed by Minix’s 25-yard field goal to give the Panthers a 30-7 lead at halftime.

Flinn provided the only points for either side in the third quarter, with his second score of the game, a 10-yard run to increase the Panthers’ advantage to 37-7 as the fourth quarter began.

Liberty Hill’s defense remained relentless despite the lopsided scoreline and finished off the third period by allowing Champion only four combined yards on eight plays on back-to-back three-and-outs, a detail not lost on Walker.

“Our defense played really well tonight,” he said. “(Senior linebacker) Andon Thomas is all over the field and I thought we covered well, so I’m excited by our defensive play.”

Champion’s only big play of the night was when Ballin hooked up with wideout Ryan Brandon with a short pass the lanky senior took 56 yards for a touchdown midway through the third, a score which was sandwiched by Liberty Hill’s final two trips to the end zone when Dyer and Pitchford scored from 12 and one yard, respectively, to close the scoring.

In addition to Long’s big night, Pitchford ran for 136 yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts, while Flinn carried 17 times for 133 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Liberty Hill (10-2) will next face Rouse (11-1) – who defeated Floresville, 59-19, on Friday – in a rematch of last season’s high-flying 52-46 Panthers’ victory over the Raiders in the third round at Gupton Stadium in Cedar Park.

“We’re ready and confident,” said Thomas. “Good to go.”

Following his team’s second straight 500-yard rushing performance in as many weeks after putting up 520 in a 57-7 first-round win over Bastrop, Walker gushed praise for not only the players who make up the unit, but the coaches who draw up the plays.

“Our whole offensive staff has done an outstanding job,” said Walker. “Overall, they did a great job and our kids are playing hard right now – that’s all you can ask of them.”

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