MISSION — The Sharyland Pioneer Diamondbacks haven’t met a team all season that has been able to match their offensive firepower.
That’ll change Saturday afternoon, as the Diamondbacks (8-0, 4-0) are set to collide with Liberty Hill (11-0, 6-0) in the Class 5A Division II Region IV final. And the Sharyland Pioneer defense is ready for the challenge.
“This has to be our best game thus far. They (Liberty Hill) do great things up there putting up points, shutting teams out. We just need to go out and do what we’ve done these past few weeks and get the job done,” Pioneer senior middle linebacker Jay Palacios said.
While Pioneer’s prolific spread offense, led by quarterback Eddie Lee Marburger, throws the ball all around the field, the Liberty Hill Panthers bring a complete opposite approach to the offensive side of the ball.
Enter the Slot-T, a run-heavy scheme based on deception, misdirection, power and speed that Liberty Hill has run for nearly 20 years. And when a team is running the ball successfully and ending drives with touchdowns while killing the clock, it also keeps the opposing offense off the field.
Liberty Hill’s 1-2 punch on the ground is made up of senior running backs Blake Simpson and Trey Seward, as the Panthers have rushed for more than 4,500 yards as a team this season. Liberty Hill is also averaging 51.3 points per game, while Pioneer averages 55.0
“We know this team is going to be tough and physical. This team is all about the ground and pound, 3-4 yards, first down and just trying to run it down our throat. Ultimately, we know they’re trying to keep Eddie and our offense off the field,” junior middle linebacker Caleb Fuentes said. “I think we’re going to match they’re physicality and aggressiveness and we’ll be OK.”
The Diamondbacks are no strangers to going head-to-head against the Slot-T. They’ve played Edcouch-Elsa two of the past three seasons and Roma earlier this year, and went up against it when the Diamondbacks beat Marble Falls 54-47 in the second round of this year’s playoffs.
Leading the Pioneer defense is a solid front seven with size on the defensive line and speed at the second level.
Defensive ends Aryn Solis and Trevor Huddleston stand at 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3, respectively, while Danny Roman holds down the nose guard position. With them blowing things up at the line of scrimmage, it allows Pioneer’s four athletic linebackers — Anton Sanchez (50 total tackles), Guillermo Guerrero (72 total tackles), Fuentes (96 total tackles) and Palacios (91 total tackles) to fly to the ball.
“As everyone knows, we’re not the biggest. We got some size on the D-line, but none of our linebackers top six feet,” Pioneer’s leading tackler Fuentes said. “Ultimately, we’re just scrappy. We just bite at the bone and keep going at it every play. I think that’s why we’ve had success as a front seven is because of that effort and that confidence.”
“It’s going to take a special effort from that side. Our defensive group has been solid all year and those guys are only getting better,” Pioneer head coach Tom Lee said. “They’re little guys, but they play with a lot of heart. They’re very tenacious and they get after it. That group has been big for us running sideline to sideline, and with Caleb and Jay, we have two experienced guys leading our defense, and they got a big test this week and they’re up for it.”
For Solis, it’s an opportunity he’s not taking for granted. Pioneer’s senior defensive end had to grind twice as hard to get back on the field after overcoming an injury suffered last December. Now, Solis and the Diamondbacks are set to start the new year as the Rio Grande Valley’s last team standing in the UIL playoffs.
“It’s 11 brothers to the ball at all times. This is a really good group of guys, and now we get to go to battle in the fourth round,” Solis said.
Kickoff between Sharyland Pioneer and Liberty Hill is slated for 5 p.m. Saturday at Heroes Stadium in San Antonio. Ticket information can be found online at SharylandISD.org/departments/athletics/game_tickets.