The game had the intensity of a state championship as the Liberty County High School took on the Thomson Bulldogs in Donell Woods Stadium Friday.
The win would clinch the top spot for Region 3-AAAA for either team. However intensity can bring emotions and a few heated moments hurt the Liberty boys, who fell 42-20.
“We played hard, but we definitely didn’t play smart,” Liberty head coach Kirk Warner said. “We made too many mistakes… We can’t turn the ball over five times and expect to beat a team of this caliber.”
In addition to turnovers the Panthers jump off-sides several times and led to more than two unsportsmanlike calls. Some fouls gave the Bulldogs short field advantages they didn’t waste.
“When we are jumping off-sides and giving a good team like this third and fourth and short...it gets hard. We played aggressive and I thought a couple of the penalties were borderline…you know guys fighting to get out of bounds, but it just didn’t go our way,” Warner said. “But we have to regroup and finish out the season on a good note, whatever seed we get in the playoff we will just have to go with it.”
The Bulldogs charged out of the gate, scoring on their first drive.
On Liberty’s first drive, a turnover and personal foul call gave the Bulldogs an easy three-yard touchdown and the 14-0 lead.
Panther Richard LeCounte played on both sides of the ball as Liberty had the all-around athlete running the wildcat for offense. And Liberty had a series of good plays after LeCounte broke open for a 20-plus-yard gain. Jacquez Williams followed suit with a first down run.
But the Bulldogs forced fourth and nine. Liberty couldn’t convert the first down attempt.
The Bulldogs took over at their own 41 and kept feeding the ball to workhorse Billy Mance.
Mance barreled through the Panther defense into the end zone from the 20, putting the Bulldogs up 21-0.
On the ensuing kickoff, LeCounte bolted and was 30 yards downfield when a Bulldog yanked LeCounte down by his face mask. That gave Liberty a short field. Williams scored on a 20-yard run.
And the Panthers added a TD before the half despite another turnover.
LeCounte, Williams and Elisha Polite pushed their way through the staunch Bulldog defense and scored from the two.
Thomson led 21-14 at the half.
The Panthers opened the third with another turnover which Thomson quickly turned into a TD.
Still fighting, Williams made a huge gain giving the Panthers the ball at the 19 yard line.
Again the Bulldog defense swarmed and Liberty came up short on fourth down.
The Bulldogs had the ball at their own 13 and Mance barreled downfield again. Liberty was flagged, turning a fourth down into a fresh set of downs for Thomson. They took the ball to the goal line.
This time, Liberty’s defense stepped up, swarming and denying the touchdown on fourth and goal.
With renewed energy Williams found an outside seam and ran 80-plus yards for a Panther touchdown. The two-point conversion attempt failed, setting the score at 28-20.
Then Liberty’s emotions got to them, drawing two unsportsmanlike penalties and practically placing the Bulldogs in scoring position, which they did in just three plays as the fourth quarter began.
Adding insult to injury, Liberty coughed up the ball on their next drive and the Bulldogs scooped it up and ran it in for score, 42-20.
It was a rough loss, especially on senior night.
Senior Jarquel (Richardson) Frazier had to leave the game early after dislocating his shoulder. Senior Jacari Roberts left early with a sprained shoulder. Both start for the Panthers, but Warner said other seniors and players did step up as well.
“Jeremiah Gilbert played a heck of a game as did DeShaun Hudson,” Warner said. “We knew those guys (Thomson) were big up front in their offensive line and our defensive line had to win a lot of battles. We won some and we lost some but they played their hearts out. Calvin Holmes played well. Martial Washington played outstanding… Those seniors didn’t lay down, they played hard. The score really doesn’t indicate how the game went.”
Liberty’s region standing is out of their control as they look ahead to the playoffs.
“Thomson still has to play both Wayne County and Burke. And Burke still has to play Wayne,” Warner explained. “All we can do is sit here and watch how things unfold.”
Liberty plays their last region game Friday at Windsor Forest. They finish the season with a non-region game at Richmond Hill.