GONZALES — It should come as no surprise that the Gonzales Apaches enter the area round of playoffs the underdog against the Liberty Hill Panthers, who were ranked third in the AP state poll in all of Class 4A at the end of the season.
Both teams have played their respective roles already. Liberty Hill (9-1) have been favorites just about all season with an average score differential of 39.4 points per game. Taking out that 52-51 overtime loss to Hutto back in September, the Liberty Hill Panthers have beaten times by an average of 43.7 points per game. In a blink of an eye, the Panthers can turn what could be a close game into a blowout. In their game against Lampasas, Liberty Hill led 14-13 late in the first half, with Lampasas driving. The Panthers forced a fumble, scored, got the ball at the start of the third quarter, scored again and now they’re up 15 before they started to roll.
Gonzales (6-5) has played their respective role of underdog this season. It’s been written about already, though it should be still be noted, these Apaches weren’t expected to make it to the playoffs let alone become tri-district champions this season. Yet here they are, ready to take on another Goliath, and Gonzales Head Coach Kodi Crane believes their upset win over Boerne is a blueprint to what the team needs to do to take down Liberty Hill.
“This is the number three team in the state,” Crane said. “For us to beat these guys, we’re going to have to play and execute all three phases of the game, just like when we did against Boerne, going into that game 20-point whatever underdog, very similar. Go execute offense, defense, special teams and dominate and build and get our momentum rolling, just like Boerne. There were several times in that football game that adversity hit us and we had to step up and make a play. Adversity will hit this Friday night, they’re too good of a football team to not make a play here or there. They’re going to make some plays, they’re going to score some touchdowns, some bad things are going to happen to us and it is how we respond to that.”
Liberty Hill runs a Slot T offense with an emphasis on the outside sweep and the trap. Calling them “run heavy” would be putting it too lightly the amount of plays ran on the ground.
“In their district play, their quarterback has thrown 28 passes, 12 completions for 326 yards,” Crane said. “That’s not very many, especially when you’re talking about the offensive leader. They’re going to run the ball. They’re going to run the ball over and over and they will find their times to take their shot and it’s highly effective whenever they do but it’s not very often, even less than Navarro did. Our eye discipline has got to be next level good.”
The main back for the Panthers is Kyle Harrison (10), with Kristian Taggart (33) and Nash Robinson (28) switching off in the same position and Shane Gonzales (44) and Blake Simpson (42) taking over another tailback spot.
“They got four players to play two positions extremely [well],” Crane scouted.
Junior quarterback Jacob Cearley (11) will be the one lining up behind center.
Other than Paul Montes (74) at left tackle, the offensive line isn’t particularly big. Crane described the interior linemen, specifically the two guards, as fullbacks converted to linemen.
“I’m sure both of these kids played fullback whenever they were in junior high,” he explained. “They weren’t going to be the fullback, these two kids took over, so they moved them to guard. These guys got to be able to run as much as a [fullback]. They’re physical, not super huge.”
In past games against a Slot T offense, Crane used the three words alignment, assignment and responsibility to describe their defense. The “alignment” part of that strategy becomes a bit more difficult since the Panthers snap the ball immediately after getting set. Liberty Hill huddles 10 yards behind the ball, calls their play, runs up to the ball, gets set, then immediately hikes the ball about a second later.
“Our eye discipline has to start when they’re in their huddle,” Crane said, “having our eyes where they’re supposed to be so we got to communicate our call quick, get our calls spread out to our kids and get our eye discipline because they just race out and snap the ball.”
Defensively, the team runs an odd front 50 with a cover two secondary. They use their linebackers to blitz and cause havoc. Defensive ends Kory Schmidt (22) and Walker Baty (88) are who control the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Mason Ogle (26) is another player to look out for on that defense.
“We’re going to keep doing what we do,” Crane said when asked about his offense. “That’s been our success. We’re going to run the football. We got to be physical, we got to run and make positive yards on every snap, make positive yards and make first downs — first downs turn into touchdowns. We got to be efficient whenever we get to scoring. Every possession needs to end with a kick of some kind, whether it’s a punt or extra point or a field goal, because [Liberty Hill] pride themselves on game-changing plays, on momentum swinging plays.”
The Apaches are expected to be aggressive on offense in an effort to keep the ball away from Liberty Hill.
“We’ve seen their offensive drives that start on the negative four yard line that go for touchdowns,” Crane joked.
“This offense that we’re playing, they want to be three yards and a cloud of dust, but they are really good at big plays and they can do it any point in time,” he added. “For us, whenever we get into scoring opportunities we got to be aggressive and we got to put the pedal down and go and make things happen.”
The Apaches are multiple-touchdown underdogs Friday night. But there aren’t very many who had Gonzales pegged as playing a football game after Thanksgiving, the area round of playoffs.
For Gonzales to stun yet another great team, the team needs to execute on all three phases, just like in their game against Boerne.
“Taking care of our opportunities, protecting the football just like we did against Boerne, creating turnovers just like we did against Boerne, making those positive things, in all three phases of the game is going to take to go be successful on Friday night,” Crane said. “I believe with all my heart this football team can do that.”
Kickoff is set at 7:30 p.m. this Friday, Nov. 23 at Mustang Stadium in Manor.