After missing the playoffs last year, the El Campo Ricebirds’ dream season ended in the third round Friday as the Liberty Hill Panthers picked up the 24-6 win in Bastrop.
Predicted to finish last in district, the Ricebirds not only made the playoffs but went three rounds deep. However, the Panthers wing-t offense proved too much for the El Campo defense.
“I thought we did a good job on it at times,” Ricebirds Head Coach Wayne Condra said. “They popped (long runs) a couple of times, we missed a tackle here or there, but for the most part the defense battled their tails off.”
The Panthers brought the fight to the Ricebirds early, breaking two long runs, leading to two scores in the first quarter. However, the Ricebirds defense held its own the rest of the way, holding Liberty Hill, who’d been averaging 51 points in their last four games, to one touchdown in the second half.
The El Campo offense, which broke out against Beeville Jones last week, found yards tough to come by Friday night. The Ricebirds running game, found itself stuck in the mud and only picked up five first downs in the first half.
“Offensively, we just couldn’t get anything going and when we did, we’d get a setback,” Condra said.
Liberty Hill started the game with the ball and on the first play of the game, senior Joshua Mendoza came away with a fumble recovery.
With good field position, the Ricebirds picked up a first down on a pass from junior quarterback Cullen Braden to junior wide receiver Nathan Willis. Sophomore running back Johntre Davis moved the Ricebirds closer to the red zone with an eight-yard pickup.
With momentum seemingly building, the Liberty Hill defense stiffened and held the Ricebirds to three straight runs for no gain.
Liberty Hill took the ball and quickly scored on a two-play drive. After a three and out from El Campo, Liberty Hill again scored on a two-play drive and six minutes into the first quarter the Ricebirds were down 14-0.
The Ricebirds’ defense railed back and held Liberty Hill to two field-goal attempts the rest of the half. The offense just couldn’t get going and ended the half with a punt followed by an interception.
In the third quarter with good field possession, Liberty Hill broke free for a long 25-yard run. On second and goal, Liberty Hill scored from one-yard out to make it 24-0.
El Campo got on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter. Braden on fourth and short found senior tight end Conner Williams wide open over the middle. Williams ran the ball 60-yards, but was tackled short of the goal line. Davis paid off the drive with a two-yard touchdown run. The Ricebirds went for two, but it failed.
The Ricebirds season has been filled with big second-half moments, but in the playoffs, a 17-point hole was too much to overcome against Liberty Hill.
While the Ricebirds’ run ended in Bastrop, they answered last year’s three-win team by winning 10 games and making it back to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
“They way people doubted us, the way we made it this far with the leadership on this team, they’re going to go far next year,” senior Matthew Van Gorp said. “I hope the impression we made this year is going to rock them forward and hopefully it pushes them to state.”