By Joseph Garcia
Excuse Liberty Hill High School softball Coach Charice Hankins if she eagerly anticipates the upcoming season. She has good reason to be excited.
Following an early exit from the playoffs last year, Coach Hankins and her varsity team will look to make a run to the state tournament in 2012 led by a core group of returning players comprised of eight seniors and two juniors.
Still, the sting of last year is fresh in the mind of Coach Hankins.
“Last year was a great year up until the playoffs,” she said. “We got beat in the second round, which was very disappointing since the same group made it to the regional finals the year before as sophomores.”
Hankins, the Women’s Athletic Coordinator, agrees with the idea that success at a young age may have bred some overconfidence in the team that finished 24-8 and District Champions as juniors.
“You want them to have confidence and attitude, but then when they were successful and sophomores, their junior year they felt like they could walk out on the field and deserve to win,” Hankins said. “It didn’t work that way because I didn’t feel like they worked hard enough or focused enough to win again.”
As sophomores, the seven seniors from this year’s team tasted early success as they won the district title and played their way to the regional tournament, finishing with a 28-14 record.
“I remember them asking me as sophomores if I thought they could make it to the state tournament and I said ‘of course’,” Hankins said. “We were one game away from the state tournament and I thought we would have gone even further (had we won).”
Now it’s a new season full of high expectations, including another district championship and a deep trip in the playoffs.
“My expectations are really high…I am really excited,” Hankins acknowledged. “Their sophomore year I didn’t expect them to do as much as they did and last year I thought they should have done more. So, I think that this year there is no pressure. I just want them to play, compete and feel good. We are spending a lot more time on positive energy and continuity.”
On varsity, Liberty Hill returns: Paige Holland (Pitcher/1B – Senior), Kyli Herman (Catcher – Senior), Paige Lafferty (SS – Junior), Kendyl Yandrisovitz (3B – Senior), Bailey Browder (OF – Senior), Courtney Weems (CF- Junior), Kourtney Bevers (Pitcher – Senior), Lorrie Potts (OF – Senior), Jessica Green (OF – Senior) and Katy Mullan (DH – Senior).
The Lady Panthers will be faced with a strong district schedule with rosters full of players wanting to beat this particular group.
Liberty Hill played its first scrimmage of the season, beating Del Valle 9-3 in on Tuesday, Jan. 31. Liberty Hill’s official season opener will be Valentines Day, Feb. 14, vs. Gatesville at home beginning at 5 p.m. with the JV team and 6:45 p.m. for varsity.
District 25-3A play will not start until March 20 at Salado. But the Lady Panthers will be tested with the likes of Bowie, Wimberley, and Austin High on the schedule as well as a few big tournaments.
“We play pretty tough pre-district games,” Hankins said. “This year we are going to the Round Rock and Georgetown tournaments. So any losses (suffered), to me, are valuable and teach us a lot.”
Burnet, Taylor and Salado and Lampasas will be the other teams in district to watch this year, according to Hankins.
“They will all be teams that come with full force to beat us because we’ve won the district championship the last three years and I think they are sick of it,” she admitted. “Salado always finds a way to compete with Liberty Hill. It’s always close, last year we won 2-1 and 2-0 so they come to play. For Burnet, they are always motivated to beat us.”
The core group of seniors on this year’s team have earned 20 wins every year since they were freshmen. Overall their record over the last three years is an astonishing 72-35.
Hankins, in her second decade (20 years) of coaching softball at LHHS, will be graduating what she calls an “amazing” group of seniors. But while half her varsity team will be lost next year, she said due to the program’s growth the cupboard will not be bare in 2013 and beyond.
For the first time in school history Liberty Hill will field three softball teams (varsity, JV-A and JV-B). The idea to mold future varsity players is simple for Hankins: the more kids play, the more experience they gain.
“It will be pretty busy but I think everyone will get a lot of experience this way,” Hankins explained. “There won’t be anybody sitting. Even as an athlete I always thought you don’t learn anything by sitting.
“We are graduating seven or eight starters. With that being said, next year I don’t want to come in at ground zero. I want everybody that is playing this year to get some experience so that when they step into a starting role they have (the tools) they need to be successful.”
Over the last couple of years the participation in the softball program at LHHS has hovered around 30 girls. Hankins said she usually only carries about 14 players on the varsity team, making the JV squad huge.
Right now Hankins has 34-37 girls trying out for softball, including 10 or so who are still playing freshmen and JV basketball, and of course Bevers, Potts and likely Green from the varsity squad.
Hankins said the increase in participation is due to the city’s youth leagues. She is pleased with the results produced over the last few years.
“It’s been great being at Liberty Hill,” she said. “Softball has really evolved. It’s been one of those sports that’s been kind of slow taking, but now our little leagues are getting better and more kids are playing. Now when the kids are coming into high school they actually have some experience. It’s now all catching up.”
The quantity of quality players is evident to Coach Hankins, too, especially in the most important position in softball – pitcher.
“This year we actually have a lot of kids coming in here that can pitch,” Hankins said. “Which is usually what it boils down to in softball. We usually only have two to four pitchers (two on varsity and two on JV). This year we are going to have five or six pitchers.”
Hankins, also a world history teacher, undoubtedly has a good pulse on the softball program’s history at Liberty Hill.
Much like Coach Matt Kirschner’s basketball team, the softball team, full of seniors, has one last chance at the state tournament.
“This senior class has been special,” she said. “I’ve been here 20 years and we’ve never had this caliber of talent at one time. We’ve got to make sure that they understand that that doesn’t just happen. It’s kind of a gift and you can’t take that for granted. Now they’ve got one shot left and it’s here.”