By Joseph Garcia
The Liberty Hill Lady Panthers’ 2012 basketball season was one not to be forgotten as they reached their ultimate goal by playing their final game at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, on the stage that is the state tournament.
However, to truly appreciate what the Lady Panthers accomplished this season going 35-5, one must look back on what transpired over the last three years.
First, Matt Kirschner was named the Lady Panthers’ head coach three years ago, taking over a squad full of talented underclassmen.
As sophomores and freshmen, the 2012 Lady Panthers made it to within one game of the state tournament, but lost to Peyton Little and the Wylie Bulldogs in the regional finals.
Then last year, the Liberty Hill girls were upset by Salado before the regional tournament, setting the stage for one final run to the state tourney.
“I took over three years ago when they were all sophomores and freshmen,” said Coach Kirschner. “It was a deal where we weren’t real sure that first year how good we’d be. We came one game away from making the state tournament and then last year we didn’t make the regional tournament, which left a bitter taste in our mouth.”
Kirschner said that even though the goal was always Austin in 2012, there were smaller goals throughout the year that they had to set forth.
The sojourn began in November with tournaments in Marble Falls and Georgetown against tough 4A and 5A teams. Through that stretch of games, the Lady Panthers went 7-3, losing to only the likes of ranked 5A teams such as tournament host Georgetown (ranked No. 18) and Lubbock Coronado (No. 12).
Sure, the Lady Panthers were up against stiff competition, but there was always a method to the madness in the season planning of Coach K.
“Each game throughout the year we were building for the reason of playing in Austin,” Kirschner explained. “A lot of what I did was in preparation for the state tournament. I was trying to get them ready for that experience to try to make it where the awe factor wouldn’t be there.”
Well, the preparations seemingly worked as the Lady Panthers would only lose two more games the rest of the season.
After falling to Brownwood 46-43, the Lady Panthers appeared to be a team on a mission as they went on a 22-game winning streak.
As part of the streak, Liberty Hill went through the District 25-3A unscathed, finishing with a 10-0 record as district champs.
Then came the post-season where the ride really began to be fun.
Scoring nearly 100 points (98-41) in a second-round victory over San Antonio Sam Houston, Liberty Hill made it known they were in it to win it.
Next, they exacted revenge by handling Salado in the regional quarterfinals 54-35, sending the Lady Panthers to the coast for the Region IV Tournament in Corpus Christi.
While it was a business trip, Kirschner said the moment was special.
“The bus trip down to Corpus and back was a lot of fun,” he joked. “You kind of encapsulate those kids on a bus for five hours. It’s a good thing they all get a long because that’s a long time to be surrounded by your friends.”
Once in Corpus, the Lady Panthers, perhaps, played their most complete game of the year, overwhelming local team West Oso 61-13, setting up a match against a team the Lady Panthers were very familiar with – Burnet.
“I think that every game we went through throughout the year, especially later in the year, we started playing our best,” Kirschner explained of his team. “That’s what good teams do. As the year goes on they get better and better and continue to work hard.”
Burnet put up a fight, but Liberty Hill would have none of it as they defeated the Lady Dawgs (58-36) for the third time of the season, but this time for the right to play in the state tournament.
“The team and myself set out for a goal of winning a state championship,” Kirschner said. “But to truly win it you have to get to Austin. So we did achieve what we set out to do.”
Kirschner said the weight of what they had accomplished had yet to hit him and the team until they arrived in Austin.
“After (the Burnet game) we knew we made it, but I don’t think it really became real until the week we started practice (for state),” he said. “Then when we walked into the Erwin Center is where it really hit that hey, we reached Austin.”
The state tournament is an event Kirschner has always wanted to participate in, be it player or coach. His girls lost to eventual state champs Abilene Wylie 65-52 in the state semifinal. But that did not take away from anything the Lady Panthers and Kirschner accomplished this year.
“In four years in high school I never got to go as a player and I know a lot of great coaches who’ve never been there,” he said. “I wanted the girls to have the opportunity to say they went to the state tournament. There are only four teams that get to go each year and that’s something special that the kids will always remember and something I will always remember. I think the girls did a wonderful job of playing in Austin.
“As I sat and watched the boys’ tournament last week you don’t know how many coaches I talked to and said congratulations and make sure you remember it because it’s something special that a lot of coaches or players don’t get to enjoy,” Kirschner said.
While the hardware and the accolades may mark a successful season, it is the relationships that matter the most to Coach K as he sends nine seniors off to college who are “very close” to him.
“The most rewarding part is building a relationship with the kids,” he said. “Even as teachers we build some of those relationships, but when you are around the basketball players as much as we are you build even stronger relationships. I still have kids I talk to from most of the years I’ve coached. Those kids will remember what you did for them and you will always remember what they did for you as a coach.”