By Scott Akanewich
ARLINGTON — On most occasions when Liberty Hill’s defense holds an opponent under 30 points, the chance of victory is high, as the Panthers’ Slot-T offense usually takes care of the rest.
However, when up against against the fastest, most athletic defense they had seen all season, the Purple-and-Gold was largely shut down in a 23-14 defeat at the hands of the Golden Bears in the Class 5A Division II state championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Saturday.
Liberty Hill head coach Kent Walker said the athleticism South Oak Cliff had at its disposal was simply too much for his team to overcome in the end.
“They’re definitely the fastest defense we’ve seen and they’re so big up front,” he said. “It made it very difficult for us to move on.”
The Golden Bears wasted no time in taking the opening kickoff and embarking on a 10-play, 46-yard drive that took 5:08 off the clock in taking a 7-0 lead on a 17-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kevin Henry-Jennings to Corinthean Coleman.
After the teams traded punts on the next pair of possessions, the Panthers drove the ball 50 yards on eight plays before senior kicker Ethan Minix lined up a field goal from 35 yards out, only to miss wide left, leaving the score at 7-0 as the opening quarter ended.
Henry-Jennings then completed three passes on a drive that spanned the first and second periods before hooking up with sophomore wideout Jamyri Cauley on a 27-yard scoring strike and a 14-0 lead.
After a sluggish start, Liberty Hill’s offense got on track on the ensuing possession, as Noah Long and Joe Pitchford began chewing up chunks of yardage in the duo’s customary fashion, highlighted by the latter’s 14-yard rumble.
Finally, senior Andon Thomas burst through South Oak Cliff tacklers for the Panthers’ first points of the game on a 10-yard run to halve the deficit to 14-7.
Thomas then took his usual middle linebacker spot back on the Golden Bears’ next possession and on a 3rd-and-10 play from the South Oak 42-yard-line, Thomas burst into the backfield as Henry-Jennings looked downfield for a receiver only to rush the signal-caller into an off-target throw that was broken up by Carlton Schrank, forcing a punt that gave the ball back to Liberty Hill at its own 13-yard line.
On 3rd-and-8 from the Panthers’ 34-yard line, Pitchford took off on a 62-yard jaunt down the left sideline before finally being brought down from behind at the South Oak Cliff 4-yard-line.
From there, it was Thomas who once again traded sides of the line of scrimmage and powered his way in from one yard out to level the score at 14-14.
Long returned the second-half kickoff 39 yards to provide the Panthers with positive field position to begin the second half before facing a 4th-and-2 at the Golden Bears’ 28, when it was Thomas who converted the first down on a 10-yard run.
But, Liberty Hill could advance no farther than the 17, from which Minix hooked another kick wide left to leave the Panthers empty-handed on the 11-play drive.
The remainder of the third quarter was a stubborn battle of field position as both sides failed to make inroads toward the other’s end zone and the game entered the final quarter still tied at 14-14 after a scoreless period.
South Oak Cliff kicker Diego Varela booted a 29-yard field goal to put the Golden Bears in the lead with 8:25 left in regulation and it looked as if the Panthers’ pair of missed kicks might be the difference in the game.
Liberty Hill’s offense failed to move the ball on its next possession resulting in Thomas dropping back to punt from his own 34, only to pull the ball down and gallop 21 yards for a first down.
However, the Panthers were called for holding on the play, which nullified the gain, forcing them to punt again.
But, when Thomas received the snap on the next play, this time he rolled out to his right and heaved a pass downfield for Pitchford that fell incomplete.
As a result, South Oak Cliff took over at the Liberty Hill 24 with a chance to add to its lead.
Walker said the decision to go for the fake was one they needed to take at that point in the proceedings.
“We were going to gamble there,” he said. “But, once we got the holding penalty on the first one, we probably should’ve kicked it and made them earn it, but we thought we had a shot –it just didn’t work out.”
Following that fateful chain of events, the Golden Bears didn’t take long to capitalize on the Panthers’ failed attempt to fight back, when Qualon Farrar scored on a 17-yard cutback run to increase the South Oak Cliff advantage to 23-14.
With one final chance to mount a comeback, Long fumbled on the ensuing kickoff, which was recovered by the Golden Bears who only had to line up in victory formation to claim the championship.
Pitchford led Liberty Hill with 158 yards on 20 carries, as the Panthers ran for 278 yards in all, the lowest output since gaining 270 in a season-opening 12-7 home loss to Ellison.â¨Long picked up 67 yards on 16 attempts, while Thomas gained 43 yards on seven carries and both Liberty Hill touchdowns.
Seniors Aaron Brewer and Lloyd Johnson, Jr. each had six tackles to lead the Panthers, while Thomas added five.
According to Johnson, he and his defensive mates knew they needed to neutralize the Golden Bears’ offense as much as they could in order to give their own a chance.
“We knew we had to just go out and get as many stops as we could,” he said. “We had 11 new starters on offense this year and it just took time for them to come together.”
Thomas said the Golden Bears were a formidable and worthy opponent.
“They presented a great challenge,” he said. “They’re really athletic, really fast. Props to them, they executed on offense and they had really great athletes.”
Aside from the disappointing result, though, Thomas took time to recognize the special journey he and his teammates had just come to the end of.
“This season – I mean, just the brotherhood that’s through the whole team,” he said. “It’s just I’ve never been a part of something like that – it’s truly a family. I know whatever I need, they’ll be there for me. So just just having this family – a second family, it’s really close and means a lot to me.”
Liberty Hill ended the season with a 13-3 record and a district championship to its name, but it was the big one that got away in the end that will be painful moving forward – particularly for the players that won’t be back next season, the said Walker.
“Our senior class is a special group,” he said. “Most of you all know what they’ve been through and what we’ve been through over the past year and I can’t thank them enough for the support they’ve given me. Just an awesome group of young men.”