By Joseph Garcia
Saying goodbye is never easy and that held true on Friday night as well when the Liberty Hill Lady Panthers played their final home game of the season and last ever at the old Panthers Den.
For seniors Cera Dixon, Erin FitzGerald, Shelby Hart, Maddie Metzger and Danielle Wolesensky, it was their final home game; period.
Emotions were running high as was the scoreboard with the Lady Panthers never giving visiting Lampasas a shot. They jumped out to a 14-2 lead after one and went on to win handily 51-30, led by Metzger’s 14 points.
The team then hit the road on Tuesday night for the final regular season game in a matchup with Gatesville and were tied with Burnet for the top spot in District 8-3A. The Lady Panthers took care of business, easily winning 43-16.
Liberty Hill (8-2, 16-15) needed Lampasas to upset Burnet in order to sit alone atop the standings. And Liberty Hill Coach Matt Kirschner is probably writing a “Thank You” letter to Lampasas Coach Jenny Bowden because her Lady Badgers upset the Lady Bulldogs 39-28, giving the Lady Panthers the outright district crown.
“The kids deserve it,” said Kirschner once he found out the news after winning big in Gatesville. “They kept their heads up even in the beginning and continued to work hard. They kept believing in themselves and the system.”
But last Friday, the Lady Panthers’ attention was on their final game in the gym they have come to call a second home.
As is tradition on parent night, Kirschner gathered parents and players into a circle around center court before the game and let them all know how much they mean to him and the school.
“It’s not just about the kids that play; it’s about these fans that support these kids,” said Kirschner. “Being parent night, I got choked up. This was almost as hard as last year and I think part of that was being the last one on this floor.”
Five different Lady Panthers scored in the first quarter. Ashlee Walker got things started, followed by a bank shot from Dixon and a 3-pointer from Shelby Whitten that made it 7-0. Then a jumper from the top of the key by Hart gave Liberty Hill a 9-2 advantage before going on a 5-0 run to end the period.
In the second quarter, Liberty Hill scored on a throng of transition opportunities as excellent defense forced a multitude of Lampasas turnovers.
Metzger, playing her last game at home, led the scoring in the second period and gave the home crowd something to remember as she drained her only 3-point attempt of the season as time ran off the clock and the halftime buzzer sounded.
The bucket gave Liberty Hill a 29-12 lead at the half.
Nine of the 10 Lady Panthers would score before the game was over as Liberty Hill continued to press and force Lampasas to turn the ball over. The Lady Panthers ran away with it in the second half, taking a 42-19 lead into the fourth quarter.
Lampasas outscored Liberty Hill 11-9 in the fourth quarter, but the Lady Panthers were too far ahead, winning by a score of 51-30.
“It was a bittersweet deal tonight,” Kirschner explained. “I’m a little more emotional about it than the kids are. The biggest thing was that the (senior) girls won their last one (here). For the rest of your life you won your last home game. No one will ever take that away from you.”
As the final minutes waned, instead of Kirschner taking out the senior players, all five of them were on the court as the seconds ticked down zero. It was truly a special moment for all present, especially for the seniors.
“This was the seniors’ night and that’s why I put them in there at the very end,” Kirschner said. “Normally I pull the seniors out late in the game, but this time I wanted them to walk off the floor one last time to an ovation.”
The Lady Panthers hope to walk off to more ovations soon as the playoffs are set to begin. But since they earned a first-round bye, Liberty Hill will not be scheduled to play until the Area Round of the playoffs Feb. 14-16.