Lady Panthers sweep Columbia, advance to State tournament

By Joseph Garcia

Senior catcher Kylie Herman corals and tags a Columbia runner at the plate, preserving the shutout for the Lady Panthers in Game 2 Saturday, May 26. (Photo by Kathy Canady)

LA GRANGE – For the first time in school history, the Liberty Hill softball team will head to the UIL State Tournament to challenge the best teams in the state for the right to become champions.

It took the softball program 15 years to reach the pinnacle of success and means the world to Liberty Hill softball coach and Woman’s Athletic Coordinator Charice Hankins.

“This was a dream of mine for them and obviously a dream of theirs,” said Coach Hankins. “They visualized it, they’ve been coachable, worked hard and have been excited. This team right here has definitely outworked, outplayed, outhustled, out-wanted it and they believed at all times.”

Leopard Field at La Grange High School, the site of Liberty Hill’s last four games, was kind to the Lady Panthers.

After Liberty Hill (27-8) swept Sweeny in the regional semifinals at Leopard Field, the West Columbia Lady Roughnecks shared the same fate, losing to the Lady Panthers 3-2 in Game 1 and 2-0 in Game 2.

Liberty Hill was led by pitchers Kourtney Bevers, a senior, and freshman Samantha Junkin who hurled the ball like she was a playoff veteran. Lady Panther pitching gave up just three runs in the last four games of the playoffs with Bevers earning three of the four wins and Junkin with a save and a win.

In Game 1, played on Thursday, May 24, Liberty Hill took a 1-0 lead in the third when freshman Kallen Floyd scored on a triple hit to right-center field by Bevers. Bevers would score to make it 2-0 after a throwing error by the Columbia third baseman.

The Lady Roughnecks responded, however, with a two-run inning of their own using two singles, a sacrifice bunt and a double to even the score 2-2 in the top of the fourth.

But Liberty Hill came back in their half of the inning to make it 3-2 after an RBI single to left field by senior Lorrie Potts who had two strikes, plating Bailey Browder who reached on a leadoff double over the left fielder head.

After a solid outing from Bevers who started the game in the circle, freshman Samantha Junkin relieved her in the fifth inning and faced just 10 batters, striking out two, but most importantly shutting down the Columbia offense and picking up the save.

“That 1-2 combo seems to work,” Hankins joked about the Bevers-Junkin combination. “Junkin did a great job coming in.”

The game didn’t go without controversy, however, as there were at least three questionable calls made by the umpires. And the game fittingly ended on another bang-bang play when shortstop Paige Lafferty scooped up a hard-hit ball that could have tied the game due to a runner on second.

“It was a big game,” Hankins said. “Everybody played big, the calls were big and controversy was there, but it’s okay because that’s part of (the game).”

But Lafferty calmly snagged the ball and tagged the runner coming down to third base, ending the ball game.

“It was a great play by Lafferty coming up with that hard hit and that quick tag, it was sweet,” Hankins said. “I was surprised the runner went, but it was a heads-up play.”

Game 2 was played on Saturday, May 26, which gave Bevers enough time to rest her arm after pitching the previous Thursday. And she pitched a gem.

Bevers had a two-run lead to work with most of the game as the Lady Panthers scored the game’s only runs in the third inning.

After senior catcher Kyli Herman smacked a single to left field, sprinter Jessica Green took her place on the base pads, taking second base on a passed ball.

Green would score on an RBI single to right field by Paige Lafferty to make it 1-0 Liberty Hill. Then with Lafferty taking second on the throw in, she was in scoring position for freshman Kallen Floyd who played her on a single to center field for a 2-0 advantage Liberty Hill never gave up.

Bevers had a no-hitter going through four and one-third innings and got out of a bases loaded jam with just one out in the top on the fifth inning. After forcing a fly out, she slung a fastball that was sharply hit to first base, but fellow senior Paige Holland made a diving stop and tagged the bag to end the inning.

The game’s final out was a ground out to second base, which Floyd fielded cleanly and made a crisp throw to Holland at first before an eruption of cheering from the field and the stands as the Liberty Hill faithful were loud and proud.

In total, Bevers finished with a four-hit performance that included 10 strikeouts. Although fatigued, the power pitcher relished the moment before going back to work.

“My arm feels like it’s about to fall off,” joked Bevers with an ice pack wrapped around her right arm. “But I’m loving every minute of it. I will be good by Thursday, no problem.”

Liberty Hill is one of four 3A teams heading to Austin for the State Tournament that begins Wednesday, May 30, at McCombs Field on the University of Texas campus.

Lufkin Hudson, West and Henderson all made it to the final four with Liberty Hill.

Hudson and West will play at 9 a.m. Thursday, May 31, in the first semifinal.

Liberty Hill will then take on Henderson at 12 Noon Thursday, May 31, for the second semifinal game.

The championship game will be played at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 2.