Top-ranked Runnin’ Panthers start season

By Joseph Garcia

Following the highly-successful 2011-2012 campaign in which Liberty Hill, led by Coach Barry Boren, was a hair away from the state tournament, the Runnin’ Panthers will be faced with the arduous task of living up to those standards this season.

Recently, Liberty Hill received the No. 6 pre-season ranking by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches due to their 34-4 record in 2011 and the fact that the Panthers return two of the area’s brightest players in seniors Shane LaCaille and Blake Danielak.

While the pre-season ranking is nice, Coach Boren said it does not mean as much until they do something on the court.

“You know on paper, people think that we’re going to be pretty good because we got those two really good players coming back,” said Boren. “But, we’ve lost quite a bit and those guys are going to be hard to replace.”

In 2011-2012, Liberty Hill once again won 30 games going 34-4 on the season which ended at the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi in the Regional Semifinal. There the Panthers’ season ended after a 61-59 overtime loss to Corpus Christi Miller in the Region IV finals.

Last season, the Runnin’ Panthers’ success also included championship titles at the Marble Falls and Salado tournaments.  And as part of a 15-game winning streak, Liberty Hill ran the table in district play going a perfect 10-0 for the third year in a row. Liberty Hill capped off the fourth consecutive 30-win season for Boren last year.

“Last year was a surprise to a lot of people because we had lost those 10 seniors and we’ve had three really dominant seasons,” Boren said. “But we had a group of about five seniors that had waited their turn and it really meant something to them to make a statement. We had some superlative players but then really we had those nuts and bolts guys and that’s really what we’re missing right now. I hope that we develop that, but it’s a work in progress.”

Coach Boren said he may get some players after the football season is over, but for now the five seniors on this year’s squad also include Jessie Cousins, Josh White and one transfer from Vandergrift in 6-5 Tyler Eyre.

The transfer of Eyre, who plays the forward position, will afford the 6-7 Danielak more opportunities to play on the outside at shooting guard for Liberty Hill, which should force opposing defenses to have to adjust their big men accordingly. The inside-outside play of Danielak has added to his arsenal of offensive abilities. And with LaCaille distributing the ball and making plays of his own, many expect Liberty Hill to return to form this season.

“By getting (Tyler Eyre) from Vandergrift, what’s that done for Blake (Danielak) is it’s allowed him to play almost exclusively on the perimeter on offense so that’s made him expand his game to another dimension,” Boren said. “Right now we’re still trying to find our way. Like I said, people expect us to be good because of Blake (Danielak) and Shane (LaCaille), but whether we’re going to be good, the jury is still out on that.”

A couple other players to keep an eye on are sophomore Callen Mikulencak who played some on varsity last year as a freshman, and junior Tristan Heidelberg, who was a part of the varsity team’s playoff run last season.

The Runnin’ Panthers’ first scrimmage was on Monday, Nov. 5, and they will have another on Saturday, Nov. 10, against the likes of Marble Falls and others. Boren said he needs these pre-season opportunities to continue his evaluation of players and how they play together as a team.

He said the team is still a work in progress.

“We scrimmage Saturday and we will get to see ourselves against three different opponents,” he said. “Last year at this time I had a pretty good handle on what we were going to be like and what we were doing. But right now we are trying to see what fits for these guys the best.”

Liberty Hill’s season opens at home on Thursday, Nov. 15, against Hyde Park with the freshmen playing at 5:15 p.m., the JV at 6:30 p.m. and the varsity team at 7:45 p.m.

Following the opener the Panthers will be tested early against 4A Pflugerville Connally, 4A Lehman and 4A Leander Rouse before hitting a stretch of tournaments in early December. Liberty Hill will then continue against tough opponents in 4A Hutto, Fredericksburg, Lorena and Waco La Vega.

The Panthers will be tested early and often this season before district play begins on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, in Burnet.

“We’ve got some good games coming up right there at the beginning,” Boren said. “Pflugerville Connally will be good, Lehman will be good.”

Currently the Runnin’ Panthers possess a 43-game winning streak in district play that will be on the line this season in addition to post-season expectations. Coach Boren expects Liberty Hill’s district, 8-3A, to be much improved from last year.

“Brownwood and Gatesville are both new and they both were playoff teams in their districts last year, so obviously they are going to be good,” Boren explained. “Burnet was a playoff team and Lampasas has got the nucleus of a really good young group that I know their coach has been looking forward to this group on varsity. Then Llano’s got a new head coach so everybody is going to be improved and better than they were.”

Liberty Hill will be talented this year and has received recognition for as much with the No. 6 ranking. But Coach Boren is not yet sold on his team being as great as last season. He will take it one game at a time and hope they form a similar bond to that of the 34-4 team from 2011-2012.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Boren said. “We always tell our guys that we’re picked high, but that really what that has more to do with what the guys that came before them did, not what they did. So as a group they really have to prove themselves.”