Wilson looking for perfect record in district

Senior lineman Justin Wilson (#56) helps clear the path for the ball carriers in a recent Panther win over the Taylor Ducks. (Alex Rubio Photo)

Senior lineman Justin Wilson (#56) helps clear the path for the ball carriers in a recent Panther win over the Taylor Ducks. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By Mike Schoeffel

With an expected win over Bandera this Friday, Liberty Hill lineman Justin Wilson will finish his varsity career with a 15-0 record against district competition. A win also guarantees Wilson will graduate as a three-time district champion.

He’s proud of those numbers and accomplishments, but he’s certainly not satisfied, not while a state title lingers just beyond the horizon, capturing the imagination like Melville’s White Whale.

“Winning a state title is the ultimate goal,” said Wilson. “No accolade could equal that.”

Wilson and the Panthers were close to reeling in the big one last season. They advanced all the way to the state semifinals, but were ousted by a tough Navasota team. That defeat stung, Wilson admitted, but from its ashes came this season’s motto: “One More.”

One more, indeed, and head coach Jerry Vance believes this year’s team is ahead of schedule compared to the 2014 squad. The 2015 Panthers just might have what it takes to go out and get “one more.”

Does Wilson agree?

“Definitely,” he said. “We had a little adjustment period at the beginning of the year, but we’ve come together as a team over the past few games. We’re at a very good place right now.”

The Panthers are certainly in a better place than they were after their first three games. They began 1-2, falling to La Grange and Brownwood. Said Wilson of the Brownwood loss: “it shouldn’t have happened.” The Panthers have since won six consecutive games, all by double digits, except a 13-6 win over Wylie on Sept. 25.

Wilson doesn’t attribute any great shift in philosophy or personnel to the turnaround. He simply believes the team needed a few weeks to gel after losing key players to graduation during the offseason.

One thing that hasn’t changed since last year is Liberty Hill’s dominant running game. In 2014, the Panthers ran for the most yards in the state. They’re on pace to do the same this season.

Through eight games, quarterback Garrett Wright has thrown the ball only 21 times for 188 yards. The other 3,101 yards have come on the ground — 94-percent of the total offensive production. Against Taylor on Oct. 16, the Panthers rushed for 590 yards.

Wilson, who has made 37 consecutive starts on the offensive line, said playing in a run-heavy offense is a fulfilling experience.

“One of the most rewarding things is seeing Jon Shannon or one of our running backs break a big run for a touchdown,” he said. “When they succeed, that looks good on us. That’s the way it works.”

The Panthers success on the field may have much a to do with the manner in which they bond off it. After games on most Friday nights, a large group of varsity players sleeps over at the Wilson residence, devouring pizzas and watching the local news for a chance to catch the highlights from their game. It’s a opportunity to unwind and act like teenagers.

The record for most players to sleep over on a single night? Seventeen.

“We have five blow-up beds and some couches,” said Wilson. “People were scattered everywhere.”

Wilson said there is some talk of football during the slumber parties, but as the night wears on, it turns into a group of high school kids just hanging out and goofing off.

“We usually go back to messing around, you know, trying to take our minds off of the game,” he said. “It’s nice to have.”

So, too, is a perfect record in the district, three district championships, and a legitimate opportunity to capture the White Whale in your final season of varsity football.