The newest, toughest test of the year in the El Campo Ricebirds ongoing playoff run will come this Friday at Bastrop ISD Stadium when they take on the Liberty Hill Panthers.
For those wishing to go to the game, it will be played at 7:30 p.m. and tickets can only be purchased at the gate on game day for $7.
The Panthers are a team with a lot of postseason pedigree. Since 2015 they’ve gone at least three rounds deep each season and are coming off a trip to the state championship.
In district, the Panthers struggled with losses in their first three games. However, now they’ve gotten hot, winning their last four games.
“They were a very heavy senior-laden team last year,” Ricebirds Head Coach Wayne Condra said. “Coming into the year, they probably had some question marks on where to put who, it’s a matter of moving the pieces of the puzzle around until you find the right match and they did. They are a tradition-rich program that has a lot of pride and they got on a roll.”
In the Panthers four-game winning streak, they outscored teams 204-22, which includes two playoff blowouts.
The Ricebirds aren’t on a four-game win-streak like Liberty Hill, but the defense seems to have hit a stride. While the defense has allowed two touchdowns a game, they are getting turnovers, grabbing interceptions and forcing fumbles.
Three weeks ago, the Ricebirds fell to West Columbia, who would end up losing to Liberty Hill in the first round. That game saw the Ricebirds turn the ball over multiple times to West Columbia. In the playoffs, ball security has not been an issue.
“We know when we don’t stop ourselves, we can be a pretty good football team,” Condra said. “I think we showed that (against Beeville) and we’ve shown it during the year. The last couple of games leading up to (Beeville) we had a mistake here and a mistake there and that held us back a little bit, but we were still able to win games which the mark of a good football team.”
The third-round playoff game will feature run-heavy teams.
The Ricebirds will lineup with a couple of different running backs and use their speed and power to get their yards. The Panthers will run up to the line quickly and use a lot of motion and fakes to pick up yards.
The Panthers have two prime backs in juniors Trey Seward and Blake Simpson, both accounting for 3,092 yards. The Liberty Hill rushing attack has gained 3,981 yards so far this season.
“They present the problem of sprinting up and running (the play) and giving you different looks and all the crisscrossing,” Condra said. “You got to get set quick and go. We fell like there are some times we can lineup and do some things and hopefully, it will take advantage of what they’re going to do. We just have to go out there and execute.”
In the Ricebirds two playoff games, the defense has allowed 114 yards on the ground total. The defense is giving up an impressive 2.5 yards a carry in those games.
“We have so much confidence and everybody is playing so confident,” senior defensive end Matthew Van Gorp said. “That’s a big key for the defense is just being confident.”
Offensively the Ricebirds have had two 100-yard rushers in each of their two playoff games. While the Ricebirds were without freshmen Reuben Owens last week against Beeville, it didn’t matter. Junior Charles Shorter and Johntre Davis combined for 340 yards and six touchdowns as they ran behind the Ricebirds monster offensive line.
“We’ve been working hard in the weight room,” senior offensive linemen Devon Earls said. “We’re doing what we’re supposed to do on our blocking assignments and we talk to each and have good communication and (it all works together).”
Liberty Hill will be tough and if the Ricebirds defense continues to play well and the offense can pick up yards, they might be able to add another week to their playoff season. Turnovers in a game like this where possessions will be at a premium could spell doom for whatever team that isn’t able to hold on to the ball.
FINDING A NEW HOME
Before the season even started, the Ricebirds were dealt with what seemed like a big blow at the time.
Van Gorp, a starting center, went down with an injury during the team’s first scrimmage against La Grange. A few plays later, the backup center senior Dario Alcala also went down with an injury and the Birds turned everything over to senior Edmund Weinheimer. He’s been their ever since.
“With Edmund coming in and taking over and doing what he’s been doing, it’s been good,” Earls said. “He’s taken control of what he needs to do.”
“We know he was very capable of doing great things,” Condra said. “In the beginning, it was a matter of moving things around. And even though we were mixing and matching with Matthew in there, Edmund got in there and he’s done a tremendous job for us all year long.”
Once Van Gorp was healthy, and the line rolling, he switched over to the defense full-time. After a couple of games at linebacker, he moved down to the defensive line after Cade DuBroc got hurt in the Needville game and has been there ever since.
“I just wanted to play when I got back, I was willing to play anything,” Van Gorp said. “I started at linebacker and a couple of weeks later I moved to defensive end, I just do whatever the team needed.”
“Matthew is such a smart player,” Condra said. “When we moved him to defensive end, he fell right on in and he’s done a tremendous job. He does a great job at analyzing plays he’s been a solid piece for us on the defensive line.”
The Ricebirds’ offensive and defensive line is jam-packed with seniors. Of the 10 spots on both sides of the ball, only two spots are filled by underclassmen. The starting offensive line is made up of seniors, Earls, Weinheimer, Conner Willams and Cole Riha and sophomores Kerry North and Juan Leal. On the defensive line it’s all seniors with Williams, Van Gorp, Javien Williams and Dontavian Bluntson.