Lady Panthers advance to Regional Finals

By Joseph Garcia

Lady Panthers Coach Charice Hankins, surrounded by her team, meant business as they prepared to take the field Saturday. Liberty Hill swept Sweeny 2-0 and the team is headed to Regional Finals in La Grange this weekend. (Photo by Kathy Canady)

LA GRANGE – They’re back.

Two years ago a group of sophomores played their way to the 3A Regional Finals. Now, those Liberty Hill Lady Panthers are seniors and return to the finals with Coach Charice Hankins to attempt to complete what they started two years ago by competing for a state championship.

The Lady Panthers completed a two-game sweep of the Sweeny Lady Bulldogs in a best-of-three series played at La Grange High School’s Leopard Field May 18-19.

Games No. 1 and 2 both came down to the final inning and were come-from-behind victories for Liberty Hill.

Coach Hankins said this team is worthy of a trip back to the Regional Finals.

“This is exciting,” she said. “These kids deserve it, they work so hard and it’s great to see them fight. We put a lot of emphasis on our seniors because they’ve been here and done that. They needed to come through and they did.”

Senior Kourtney Bevers was in the circle for the Lady Panthers in Game 1. And after giving up an early run in the top of the first, she was dominant the rest of the game allowing just one run on four hits with eight strikeouts in eight innings pitched.

The Lady Panthers tied things up in the fourth inning after Bevers lined a one-hopper off the right-center field wall. Senior Paige Holland then plated Bevers from third on a sacrifice for a 1-1 score.

“Bevers led the team tonight with the pitching,” Hankins said after Game 1. “She is just one of those athletes that if you have to have someone do something you want her to do it. She is going to give you 100 percent of what she has and she will die doing whatever she can to help out this team.”

Bevers also got a little help from her friends defensively.

In the top of the sixth with Liberty Hill down 1-0 and runners in scoring position, Courtney Weems made a spectacular diving catch head first for the final out of the inning.

“That’s why she is our centerfielder, because she is not afraid of the ball,” Hankins said. “She goes and gets it and takes care of it. It’s just amazing the way she covers ground.”

Then in the seventh, senior left fielder Lorrie Potts nailed a runner at the place to preserve the tied game. Bevers followed up with her seventh K of the game.

“Lorrie threw a great ball home and that was a great out,” Hankins said. “Defensively I am happy with the way we played.”

With the game tied 1-1 it went into extra innings.

In the bottom of the eighth, senior catcher Kyli Herman doubled to left field and speedster Jessica Green stepped in to run for her.

And with two outs and Green on second, senior Kendyl Yandrisovitz hit a listless ball to shallow center field on a 1-2 count that was bobbled by the Sweeny centerfielder, allowing Green to score the game-winning run from second.

“I just wanted a base hit,” said Yandrisovitz after her walk-off single. “I thought it was a wimpy one, but it worked.”

The seniors led the way in the 2-1 Game 1 victory, but Game 2 was highlighted by the excellent pitching of freshman Samantha Junkin.

Unofficially, she pitched a complete-game shutout allowing no runs on four hits with five strikeouts in seven innings.

“Sam did a great job,” Hankins said. “I think pitchers pitch better with a little run support. But those first innings were just in-and-out, but she kept them off balance and kept them guessing. She is not a freshman in that regard. She had her composure and did a great job.”

Game 2 remained scoreless through six innings, but Liberty Hill finally broke the seal in the top of the seventh.

The rally started after Weems was hit by a pitch, putting her on first. Then senior Bailey Browder stepped up to the plate and hit a slow roller to third. But Sweeney third baseman Terra Varnardo threw the ball wide left at second base for the would-be out, sending the ball almost to the outfield wall that allowed Weems to score from first base.

Browder would eventually score the second run on a passed ball.

Then the Lady Panthers hit four-straight singles with two outs, the last one from freshman Kallen Floyd that scored two runs to make the score 4-0.

“That seventh inning it was great to see them hit the ball hard and put the pressure on the other team to make that mistake and take advantage of it,” Hankins said. “That’s what they did, it was nice to see.”

Junkin closed out the Lady Bulldogs in the bottom of the seventh, picking up her third win of the playoffs. The freshman said she was relieved to be able to assist the seniors on the team in taking the next step after the 4-0 win.

“It feels great,” said Junkin. “I’m so glad we got that win. I just get out there and pitched my game. When they get a hit I just come right back and go after the next batter. I am so excited and I really think we can go all the way. I love it.”

Liberty Hill will now face West Columbia in a best-of-three series at La Grange High School beginning Thursday, May 24, at 7:30 p.m. Game 2 will be Saturday, May 26 at 5 p.m. with an if necessary Game 3 to follow 30 minutes later.

But until then, Coach Hankins will let the girls enjoy this one.

“I told them congratulations because they deserve to be there and we are going to celebrate all the way home,” she said. “There is not having to be quiet.”