By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
If a 37-14 game can be considered close, this was it.
Despite a statistically dominating performance by Great Bend, it was a lengthy fourth quarter drive by the Panthers that finally put the game out of reach and handed the Redskins their 15th consecutive Western Athletic Conference loss.
And at one point, the Redskins had a lead and looked to be much improved over last week’s dismal performance against Garden City.
But mistakes and missed opportunities came back to haunt the Redskins.
The biggest mistake came on the first play of the second half. Liberal tailed Great Bend 21-14 and received the kickoff, but a trick pay turned out to cost the Redskins nine points and allow the Panthers to relax with a comfortable 16-point lead.
Liberal’s Trenton Hammond received the kick and headed down the Liberal sideline, but he handed off to Isaac Gallegos near the 20 yard line. Gallegos fumbled the hand-off, and the ball rolled into the end zone. Gallegos picked it up but could not escape three Panther defenders and was tackled for a safety.
Liberal then had to kick the ball into a stiff wind from its own 20 yard line, and the short field led to a Great Bend touchdown after the teams traded a possession, and Great Bend had a 30-14 lead.
The Panthers only scored one more touchdown the rest of the game, but the damage was done.
Grat Bend started the game with a gadget play of their own, but their’s did not backfire.
The Panthers threw a screen pass that bounced, but since it was a lateral it was a live ball. A Panther receiver headed downfield undefended, and the second pass hit him in stride for a 66-yard touchdown.
“It was a good play,” Liberal coach Cliff Abbott said. “The defense has to go until the whistle blows. The kids learned a hard one. It was the right time to call it.”
But Liberal responded with reserve quarterback Caleb Wehling hitting Hammond on a 33-yard touchdown pass.
Liberal’s Michael Begley intercepted a Great Bend screen pass and attempted the “linemen’s dream” by heading to the end zone but was tackled at the 28 yard line. A late hit by Great Bend on the play moved the ball to the Panther 13 yard line, and six plays later reserve running back Mauricio Neal reached the end zone for a 14-7 Liberal lead.
“We have a ‘go’ call on screen plays, and the line has to break back,” Begley said. “I heard the call and dropped back. He threw it right to me. The quarterback was in my way so I tried to truck him and get as far as I could.”
Great Bend tied the game five minutes later after a 14-play, 67-yeard drive ended with a short touchdown run.
Abbott then turned into chief litigator on the next kickoff when Hammond returned the ball to the 26 yard line and met a host of Panthers. He was pushed back to the 20 yard line and had his back turned to the defense with his forward momentum in reverse when the ball popped out and the Panthers recovered.
Abbott tried to make the case that Hammond’s forward progress was stopped but to no avail, and the Panthers were able to convert a fourth-and-14 for a touchdown on the short field to take the 21-14 lead.
Liberal had a chance to score late in the half when the Panthers fumbled and the bal hit a Redskin right in the hands with an open field in front. But Liberal could not control the ball, and the Panthers recovered.
Great Bend had one more chance to score before half, but the Redskin defense stiffened and sacked the Panther quarterback as time expired.
But the disastrous start to the second half left the Redskins chasing uphill the second half.
Wehling looked impressive in his varsity debut, completing four of eight passes for 87 yards and a touchdown while throwing no interceptions.
“That was a big chore,” Abbott said of Wehling’s effort. “I applaud his efforts.”
With Liberal struggling in the WAC, Abbott told his team to play loose.
“We had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Abbott said. “We played a good first half, but they got a safety right off in the second half. We have to reduce turnovers and put a whole game together.
The Redskins struggled to run the ball. Liberal rushed 27 times for a total of nine yards.
But most of the ball carriers were getting their first varsity action including junior Wehling, and sophomores Mauricio Neal and Erving Altamirano.
Begley had the highlight play of the evening for the Redskins with the interception, and he also battled the Panthers in the trenches in the middle of the defensive line.
“(Great Bend) had some big heads, but we showed class and fought hard to the end,” Begley said.
Liberal will return home Friday to open district play against Bishop Carroll. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.