By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
SALADO - Known for his usually weak stomach during games, junior tailback Reece Nicholson left it all out on the field against 3A power Liberty Hill - including his lunch.
But it was the referees' laundry littering the field late that ended up leaving the entire Salado Eagles football team sick to their stomachs following a 20-14 district-opening loss to the visiting Panthers, Friday at Eagle Stadium.
"Honestly, I've got no clue. We got barely any penalties the whole (game) and then right here towards the end ... I don't know what happened," Nicholson said. "I don't blame my teammates or anybody for what happened. Some mental mistakes were made and unfortunately, they happened at the wrong time."
After being called for just four penalties for 37 yards through the first four quarters, the Eagles were penalized three times for 35 yards in the overtime period, twice on personal foul penalties.
Liberty Hill, the defending District 25-3A champions, took full advantage as sophomore fullback Cody Ferrell scored the game-winning 5-yard touchdown after Salado was cited for a personal foul penalty on the Panthers' first play of the overtime period. The call gave the visitors a first-and-goal on the 14. Four plays later, the defensive slugfest was over, with Liberty Hill (4-2, 1-0 25-3A) walking out winners and the Eagles (3-3, 0-1) hanging their heads.
"We wanted to win this game more than we've wanted to win a game in a long time," said Salado junior quarterback Mike Richardson, who finished 12-of-21 for 140 yards. "Momentum was there, we lost a little at the end to a mistake, but we played our hearts out and left it all out on the field."
Playing with 30 mph crosswinds causing havoc on the field, neither offense - which entered district play Friday as two of the top three offenses in 25-3A - managed to move the consistently.
Liberty Hill owned the first half with 223 rushing yards and two touchdowns from senior tailback Jonathan Johnston, who finished with 20 carries for 172 yards.
But Salado's high-powered offense, which was averaging 45 points per game entering Friday and hadn't been shutout in the first half all season, responded in the third.
On the first play coming out of halftime, Nicholson broke free around the left side for a 34-yard gain. Five plays later, Richardson found senior Austin Silva in the left corner of the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown.
Forcing the Panthers to back-to-back three-and-outs, the Eagles took advantage of a short field. Starting at Liberty Hill's 28, a 14-yard run by senior Peyton Best set up a short 1-yard plunge by backup quarterback Ryan Simmons to tie it at 14-all with 2:44 left in the third.
"We had a few adjustments there at halftime, just trying to settle them down a little bit, and we just executed some plays," Salado coach Glenn Talbott said. "We came out fired up and scored 14 quick points."
Liberty Hill's ground game got going again in the fourth quarter on a 15-play drive to the Eagles' 5-yard line. Unable to punch it in, the Panthers chose to go for a short 22-yard field goal with five minutes left in regulation.
But coming off the right side, Salado senior linebacker Jim Wentrcek broke through and got a hand on the kick to give the Eagles one last chance.
A 43-yard screen pass from Richardson to Nicholson gave Salado great field position inside Liberty Hill territory. But the Panthers made their own big play on defense, forcing and recovering a fumble by Richardson to force overtime.
"That guy came a lot quicker than we expected and he got there before I even had a chance to read it," Richardson said. "It was my fault."
Once in overtime, Salado couldn't respond as the mental mistakes caused the Eagles to squander a chance for their first district win.