By Tucker Stephenson
LIBERTY HILL — When it was announced that Liberty Hill would climb up to Class 5A after February’s UIL realignment, some had questions regarding how the Panthers would fare against larger schools.
But after a dominant 8-0 run through the regular season and an outright district championship, those doubts no longer remain.
Liberty Hill greeted Class 6A Killeen Ellison with a 44-25 loss in its season opener on Sept. 25 and kept on churning out rushing yardage thanks to its tried-and-true Slot-T attack.
The Panthers added a 44-27 win over Del Valle — another 6A school — in its second game of the season and then began to run roughshod against opponents within District 14-5A-II. Liberty Hill wasted no time proving it was the team to beat in the league, as the Panthers put the hammer down and outscored their first five district foes by a combined tally of 328-7.
The lone team to score against Liberty Hill during league competition was eventual runner-up Marble Falls during a 40-7 rout on Oct. 30. The Panthers also bludgeoned Austin McCallum — the district’s third-place finisher — 42-0 on Oct. 23.
Senior running back Troy Seward was expected to lead the ground game, and he has by rushing for 1,002 yards and 15 touchdowns on 95 carries. But thanks to the amount of blowout wins Liberty Hill has earned, it has been able to spread the load around to several players in the backfield.
Senior Blake Simpson has run for 850 yards and 13 scores on 88 carries, while fellow senior John De La Cruz has added 535 yards and nine TDs on 62 rushing attempts.
Meanwhile, first-year starting quarterback Charles Calabretta has run for 109 yards and a pair of scores on just 10 totes. Calabretta has also made the most of his limited opportunities to throw by passing for 143 yards and four TDs on just six completions.
The Panthers only attempted 12 total passes during the 2020 regular season.
Liberty Hill’s defense has also been fearsome thus far. Junior linebacker Andon Thomas has enjoyed a breakout season and leads the team with his 80 total tackles, including 17 behind the line of scrimmage and a team-high five sacks.
Fellow junior Anthony Brewer has added 47 tackles from his linebacker spot, while linebacker Luke Huddleston and defensive back Lloyd Johnson Jr. have combined for another 80 stops. Brewer, Johnson Jr. and senior defensive lineman Blake Wilson all registered three sacks during the regular season.
In the secondary, junior cornerback Carter Hudson has snagged four interceptions for the Panthers, who have forced a grand total of 18 turnovers defensively.
Liberty Hill was all set to head into the Class 5A Division II postseason after receiving a forfeit against Austin Northeast Early College in its regular-season finale when a tragic loss rocked the program to its core. On Tuesday, Dec. 1, head coach Jeff Waker passed away after a years-long battle with cancer.
Walker, who was 52, guided the Panthers to a 38-11 record after being promoted to take over for Jerry Vance in 2017. Liberty Hill made a state championship game appearance in 2018 after knocking off Carthage in the state semifinals.
The Panthers will no doubt have heavy hearts as they embark upon their first-ever Class 5A playoff run, but Walker’s leadership will forever be present through the student-athletes he coached and helped mold throughout the years.