For nearly three months of the season, Liberty Hill coasted and the Panther faithful could sit back and just enjoy the show.
Recent victories, though, are coming with health advisories for the faint of heart.
After averaging 45-point margins of victory through 10 games – including the first two playoff contests – the Panthers held on for a 14-point win against Rouse, and ran out the clock Saturday for a three-point victory to send Pioneer packing.
“It’s crazy,” said head coach Kent Walker, taking a deep breath. “I’m so proud of our coaches and our kids. In everything we’ve done and we’ve overcome, I tear up just thinking about it.”
In a game where the two teams combined for 1,368 yards and 16 touchdowns, the difference really boiled down to extra point execution.
Pioneer missed its second point after try and chased that point all night. A two-point conversion in the second quarter got it back, but the Panthers blocked the kick on the Diamondbacks’ next score for an eight-point halftime lead.
The two teams traded early touchdowns in the third quarter, but Austin Bourgeois knocked the ball away on Pioneer’s next try and the lead grew to nine.
Two possessions later Bryce Rampy blocked a Diamondbacks’ field goal attempt and Preston Shephard returned it to midfield to set the Panthers up for another score. Early in the fourth quarter Bourgeois intercepted a two-point try which maintained a slim two-point lead for Liberty Hill.
Pioneer would fail on one more two-point try and when the dust settled, the Panthers won by three.
“We made a few stops when we needed to,” Walker said. “We kept putting points on the board, and defensively we just had to get a couple of stops and we had some key plays when we needed them.”
For a quarter, it looked like Liberty Hill might run away with the win, but inopportune penalties, some key fourth-down conversions by the Diamondbacks and the Panthers were never able to create a comfortable separation.
The offense was clicking from the first drive when Trey Seward took the first carry 47 yards, then Blake Simpson went the final 28 yards on the next play for a 7-0 lead.
Simpson again led the way with 305 yards on 21 carries and five scores, saying after the game the Panther offense is just focused on getting the job done.
“If our line keeps showing up like they are and our running backs keep showing up we’re going to go all the way,” Simpson said. “We’re going to win as a team.”
Seward finished with 190 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown, and Eric De La Cruz found the end zone twice, rushing for 189 yards on 13 carries. Noah Long had four carries for 23 yards.
Even with the eight scores, the Panthers could have had more, with three touchdown runs negated by penalties.
Pioneer quarterback Eddie Marburger – who has signed a national letter of intent to play football for the University of Texas at San Antonio next year – was as advertised, throwing for 457 yards and six touchdowns, while running for two more on a 115-yard rushing night.
“The Marburger kid is a special, special kid,” Walker said of the Pioneer quarterback. “He’s a heck of a football player.”
But even with the big numbers, some key pass deflections and a pair of interceptions – the one by Bourgeois and another by Kaden McMahan – helped the Panthers hold on for the win.
Only a game against Crosby next Friday stands between the Panthers and a return trip to the UIL State Championship game – this time in 5A. The pair will clash Jan. 8 at Merrill Green Stadium in Bryan.
Read more about the win over Pioneer and the upcoming contest with Crosby in the upcoming edition of The Independent.