Thomas leads Liberty Hill to state semis

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By Scott Akanewich

SAN MARCOS — Anyone who had Andon Thomas as Liberty Hill’s leading rusher on Friday night in the Panthers’ 43-40 Class 5A Division II state quarterfinal should’ve stopped and bought a lottery ticket on the way home from Bobcat Stadium in San Marcos.
Because that’s exactly what transpired on the turf on the campus of Texas State University, as the senior linebacker rushed for a team-high 120 yards on 11 carries with a pair of touchdowns.

However, despite his bruising running ability and keen instincts on both sides of the ball, Thomas was quick to credit a higher power for his prowess.

“I just look up to God before every play for what He wants me to do,” said Thomas, whose 33-yard, fourth quarter scoring burst up the middle provided what eventually proved to be the game’s winning points. “It’s just awesome I can come out here and help my brothers when they’re in trouble.”

Indeed, the Panthers were in a bit of a quandary for the second straight week, actually finding themselves trailing early on after Alamo Heights had received the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards in eight plays for a 6-0 lead, then held a 19-14 halftime advantage.

The Mules were able to hold the Liberty Hill offense largely in check over the course of the first half due to the fact the Alamo Heights offense kept its counterparts on the sidelines for large stretches, as the Panthers had only four first-half possessions.

Despite being plagued by three false-start penalties on their opening series, the Panthers still manged to mount a 12-play, 70 drive resulting in quarterback Reese Vickers rolling out to his right and finding nothing but acres of space to run into for a 22-yard touchdown and with an extra point off the boot of Ethan Minix, the Purple-and-Gold assumed a 7-6 lead with 4:58 remaining in the opening period, which was where the score remained as the opening 12 minutes came to a close.

But, just as Rouse had riddled the Liberty Hill defensive secondary the previous week, Alamo Heights’ duo of senior quarterback James Sobey and junior wide receiver Rett Andersen tormented them once again, as the pair combined for four touchdown passes on the evening, including the first score of the night and another from 18 yards out to give the Mules the lead back at 12-7 in the opening seconds of the second stanza.

Liberty Hill head coach Kent Walker acknowledged the issues the Panthers defense displayed.

“Tonight, we didn’t play very good defense,” he said. “Last week (against Rouse), we made some adjustments at halftime and played pretty well in the second half defensively, but tonight we didn’t play well and that’s on me.”

After back-to-back punts by the sides – including an Alamo Heights three-and-out forced by a third-down sack of Sobey by Panthers senior Reid Bynum – Liberty Hill junior fullback Logan Dyer went on a one-play, one-man scoring drive by taking a handoff from Vickers and breaking it for a 71-yard touchdown run and a 14-12 Panthers lead.

Following the third strike of the game from Sobey to Andersen – this one from 28 yards out – though, the Mules proved stubborn in taking a 19-14 lead to the halftime locker room.

But, all that only set the stage for Thomas.

After Noah Long (21-yard run) and Sobey to Andersen for the fourth time (four-yard pass) traded touchdowns, the burly, West Point-bound Thomas powered in from a yard out to give Liberty Hill a 29-26 lead at the end of three quarters in completing an odd, four-play, 14 yard drive which began after Long had returned the kickoff 50 yards before a pair of personal-foul calls on Alamo Heights – both for facemask, with one while the ball was live and another after the whistle had blown – tacking on an additional 30 yards to the end of the play in creating the short field.

However, Thomas was just getting started.

The Panthers successfully executed an onside kick, which Thomas expertly recovered at the Mules’ 43-yard line, then went back to work in carrying his share of Liberty Hill’s load rushing the ball.

Walker said the play was always in the Panthers’ bag of tricks – it was simply a matter of waiting until the most advantageous time to unveil the chicanery.

“We thought about it periodically here and there,” he said. “We just found that was an opportune time and it worked – can’t say enough about No. 10 (Thomas).”

On the opening play of the fourth period, Thomas rumbled for 37 yards from the Mules’ 44-yard line all the way down to the 19, where three plays later on 1st-and-goal from the one, Vickers scored his second touchdown of the night to increase the Liberty Hill lead to 10 points at 36-26.

But, with still plenty of time on the game clock left – 10:12, to be exact – Sobey drove his pack of Mules down the field for another score – a one-yard quarterback keeper in finishing off an 11-play, 79-yard venture, which was helped along the way by defensive holding and pass interference penalties on the Panthers in the red zone and just like that, the Liberty Hill advantage had been cut to three at 36-33.

On the ensuing Panthers possession, Long, Joe Pitchford and Vickers all carried the ball, but it was once again Thomas who stole the show.

After grinding out nine and four yards, respectively, on his first two attempts of the drive, Thomas burst through the line and sprinted 33 yards for the score which would ultimately decide the game.

Thomas said he wasn’t necessarily surprised by the running lane which was opened for him to fill.

“We saw that play had been open all night,” he said. “So, we knew we were going to get them on it.”

Despite a game, last-chance-saloon score with only 1:30 left on a one-yard run by senior running back George Flesher to pull the Mules within three at 43-40, all the Panthers had to do was kill the clock once they got the ball back one final time and victory was theirs.

In addition to Thomas’ 110 yards out of the backfield, Dyer added 78 yards on five carries while Long gained 72 on 13 attempts, with Pitchford (11 carries, 65 yards), Vickers (7-52) and Grady Flinn (4-32) rounding out the rushing attack, as the Panthers rolled up 419 yards on the ground.

Liberty Hill (12-2) will next face Crosby (12-2) in a rematch of the teams’ epic overtime thriller last season in which the Cougars prevailed by a 62-61 score when the Panthers failed to convert a two-point conversion on the final play of the game.

Walker said the focus for him and his team at this point, though, isn’t simply to return to the state semifinals, but to improve on last year’s result.

“It’s huge for us,” he said. “These kids have worked their tails off for the past year to get back to this point, but this past week our thing was we didn’t work just to get back to this spot again this year – we’d like to take it a step further.”

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