By Joseph Garcia
Entering her 16th year as the Liberty Hill High School softball coach, Charice Hankins and the Lady Panthers are almost ready to return to the diamond coming off the heels of the program’s most successful season in its history.
2012 was absolutely a season to remember.
After winning the two best-of-three series against Sweeny and Columbia in LaGrange to become regional champions, Liberty Hill punched its ticket to the State Tournament for the first time in school history last year.
The Lady Panthers’ storied 27-9 season came to an end, however, once at McCombs Field in Austin as they fell in the semifinals 3-0 to the Henderson Lady Lions.
Hankins and her staff of Kristen Brewer and Carlos Garza are entering uncharted territory with a big target on their backs as the returning champions of the district, area and region. The Liberty Hill coaches used the offseason to improve their players’ physical and mental conditioning as the first step to returning to the Promised Land.
“Our offseason time has been about just getting stronger and faster,” said Coach Hankins. “(We are) learning how to focus and work hard and we are looking forward to the opportunity to put it together on the field.”
There will be some familiar faces on the field this season, but the Lady Panthers lost nine seniors to graduation.
Liberty Hill’s softball program said goodbye to Kourtney Bevers, Bailey Browder, Robin Clarke, Jessica Green, Kyli Herman, Paige Holland, Katy Mullan, Lorrie Potts and Kendyl Yandrisovitz. The class of 2012 was a great group of seniors who realized their potential, but Coach Hankins has some very integral pieces returning from last year’s regional championship team for the 2013 campaign.
Returning this season will be seniors Paige Lafferty – shortstop, Courtney Weems – centerfield and Presley Walker – outfield. Also returning for the Lady Panthers will be sophomores Kallen Floyd – second base, Samantha Junkin – pitcher and Payton Walker – catcher.
“Those three (Lafferty, Floyd, Payton Walker) will be the core of our middle infield, and I feel confident that they are excited about continuing where we left off in 2012,” Hankins said. “Add senior Presley Walker in there, who has worked hard, and she will bring in a nice balance of focus.”
Coach Hankins realizes that going from nine seniors to just three is certainly a new dynamic from past seasons. But the experience the younger players gained in the playoffs last year is invaluable.
“Having such a large group of seniors that played together for so long (since 2010), that graduated last year after our state appearance, this year it will be a different make up of players with only three starters back,” Hankins said. “We do have three additional players back that got a lot of playing time in 2012, so they have valuable exposure that will help them with their new roles on this year’s team.”
Hankins and her staff will fill the remaining open spots with younger players who were able to travel the journey last year all the way to the state tournament. Last year’s JV players, who are vying for a spot on varsity this season, were able to practice with the varsity squad and experience the excitement of playing until the final two games of the tournament season.
One young player who was right in the think of the incredible ride in 2012 was then-freshman and now-sophomore pitcher Samantha Junkin.
Junkin, who won 14 games as a freshman behind Bevers, pitched in some crucial situations last season and was a major cog for the Lady Panthers during the playoffs. She will be Liberty Hill’s ace in the circle this season with her methodical pitching approach and laser-sharp accuracy.
If the Lady Panthers are to make a return trip to the state tournament, the sophomore slinger will be a chief reason why.
“Sam had a great freshman year,” Hankins expressed. “She pitched 14 wins and will come back this year with more experience, confidence and strength. Sam is a great spot-hitter. She knows the game, works hard with each batter, and will try and keep them as off-balance as possible. She is very effective at that.”
Liberty Hill’s season begins on Tuesday, Jan. 29, at Del Valle and Junkin is among a few basketball players who will not be available for at least the first couple of weeks of the season. So Hankins will turn to her “competing” pitchers – pitchers competing for a spot on varsity and JV-A – to fill in.
“We have several kids working hard to be in the varsity pitching rotation,” she said. “They will all get a shot at pitching innings in our scrimmages and tournament season. We are still waiting on several basketball players before any final decisions are made for any of our teams.”
The short list of potential starters for the opening game includes sophomores Linsey Mitchell and Aubrey Covington as well as freshman Nicole Theim.
Final team rosters, however, will not be officially complete until the current basketball players have a chance to go through tryouts and get some playing time, according to Hankins. “(This way) they can be evaluated too,” she said.
Hankins said she looking at a few kids right now and will narrow rosters down after the scrimmage period.
“We have several juniors competing for spots in our infield and outfield, along with a strong sophomore group and some pretty motivated freshmen,” Hankins explained. “After our scrimmages, I will be able to see and make more decisions on who is doing what.”
Liberty Hill will likely be the favorites in District 8-3A heading into the season. But Lampasas, Brownwood and Burnet all made the playoffs in 2012, with the Lady Lions making it to the area round and the Lady Badgers moving on all the way to the regional semifinals.
Lampasas, Brownwood and Burnet all should be in contention, along with Liberty Hill, for the 8-3A playoffs in 2013.
However the season shakes out, the Lady Panthers should be a team to contend with every single game. With an experienced ace pitcher and some solid bats in place, another deep run in the playoffs is not out of the question for Liberty Hill. In fact, is seemingly very likely.
“I know we will play hard and will give it the best shot possible (this season),” Hankins acknowledged. “And yes, I do believe we can make it back to the state tournament if we will put it all together.”