By Joseph Garcia
Before the first pitch of the season was hurled, Liberty Hill Women’s Athletic Coordinator and softball coach of 15 years Charice Hankins seemingly knew something.
In pre-season interviews, the long-time coach was admittedly excited for the potential her team might have in 2012. She was right.
With nine seniors on the team, some of whom have played on varsity since their sophomore year, the Lady Panthers were primed to make a run at their first State Tournament after falling just short two years ago.
“Hats off to all of our seniors,” said Hankins. “The seniors in this group, four of them are four-year starters and they just fight. They’re just great; they work hard and just a great group of kids.”
Hankins’ group was tested early in the season with ace pitcher Kourtney Bevers still in a basketball uniform for the State-bound basketball team. But that’s when freshman pitcher Samantha Junkin cut her teeth, which paid off for Liberty Hill in the long run.
Liberty Hill started the season going 5-6 as the team went through ups and downs during tournament play. But the Lady Panthers did rack up some nice wins such as 4-3 over Austin Anderson, 9-1 against Hutto and 14-4 versus Leander Rouse.
Beginning with that Rouse victory, the Lady Panthers stormed on a 13-game winning streak that included victories over Austin (7-0), Corpus Christi King (8-2) and Argyle (5-2) before hitting district play.
Once into district, Liberty Hill dominated, nearly running the table in 25-3A with a 9-1 record. The only blemish was a 3-0 loss to Taylor on the road.
Liberty Hill played a warm-up game against the LaGrange Lady Leopards, but lost 6-1.
The Lady Panthers, however, would get the last laugh on LaGrange’s home turf – Leopard field – as they swept both top-ranked Sweeny and West Columbia in two games.
Before the four games in LaGrange, Liberty Hill had to outlast some familiar foes in one-run games.
After a first-round bye, Liberty Hill traveled to San Marcos High School to take on the La Vernia Lady Bears.
Down 4-0, Bevers was knocked out of the game clearing the way for Junkin to make her high school playoff debut in the fourth inning. And with the help of the Lady Panthers’ bats on offense, she led Liberty Hill to a come-from-behind 10-9 victory in a one-game playoff over the Lady Bears.
Things did get a little shaky for Junkin and the Lady Panthers in the final frame after two runs were scored. But the freshman stuck to her guns and got the final batter to line out, earning her first playoff win.
“Sam came in and did a great job,” Hankins said. “For a freshman coming in and pitching four innings, she did a good job.”
Next, Liberty Hill made the trip west to Marble Falls to take on the Fredericksburg Lady Billies in what turned out to be a pitcher’s duel.
With runs coming at a premium, the game went into extra innings tied at 1-1.
Following a 1-2-3 inning by Junkin in the top of the eighth, Bevers led the bottom half with a single and moved to second base after a sacrifice fly off the bat of Paige Holland.
Then with two outs and Bevers waiting on third, senior right fielder Bailey Browder stepped up to the plate and slapped a hard-hit ball between first and second base, off the glove of Fredericksburg’s first baseman. Bevers sprinted into home plate for the 2-1 walk-off win.
“I just kind of wanted to make contact and get a base hit and not try too hard,” said Browder. “We finally got the runner where she needed to be I just had to relax and wait for a good pitch. It’s very exciting.”
After winning the two best-of-three series against Sweeny and Columbia in LaGrange, Liberty Hill stamped their ticket to the State Tournament for the first time in school history.
Liberty Hill’s storied season came to an end, however, at McCombs Field in Austin as the Lady Panthers dropped their semifinal game 3-0 to the Henderson Lady Lions.
Henderson was led by future Longhorn pitcher Tiarra Davis who threw a five-hit, complete game shutout.
“I wish we could have gone one more game, but this team from Henderson did a great job,” Hankins said after the game. “Their pitcher was very effective and we just didn’t have enough bats today.”
Hankins, a graduate of Southwest Texas State University, reflected on the season and the special team that played its way to the UIL State Tournament.
“As a coach I couldn’t be more proud,” she said. “I think that they did an outstanding job. They wanted it from the beginning. It’s our first time in our history that we’ve been here and so now they’ve been here and they know how. That monkey is off our backs, so next time we come we can just relax and have a good time. It’s been a great season.”