Runnin’ Panthers lock up championship

By Joseph Garcia

In the last game to be played at the old Panthers Den, senior Josh White (#3) lays up two of his 22 points in Tuesday’s win over Brownwood, which earned Liberty Hill the district title. (Photo by Kathy Canady)

The “Star-Spangled Banner” sounded throughout the old Panthers Den for the final time as the Liberty Hill faithful saluted the American Flag in anticipation for what they hoped would be a memorable evening with a championship on the line.

To make for an even more emotional parents’ night, the Liberty Hill home crowd said goodbye to six seniors.

Jessie Cousins, Blake Danielak, Jadon Durity-Boatright, Tyler Eyre, Shane LaCaille and Josh White all played their final home games in a Liberty Hill uniform in Tuesday’s final district home game vs. the winless (in district) Brownwood Lions.

And all six seniors scored with LaCaille (24), While (22), Danielak (15) leading the way, combining for 61 points in Liberty Hill’s 85-33 drubbing of the Lions. Eyre added nine, while Durity-Boatright and Cousins chipped in four apiece.

“It was very emotional,” said LaCaille. “You spend so much time and work so hard in one place; it makes it a second home. I’ve spent more time in (the Panthers Den) than anywhere but my house. (We six seniors) all were emotional. I feel like we’ve all grown up in that gym. (We) matured and bonded in there.”

With the win, Liberty Hill (9-1, 30-3) earned the District 8-3A championship outright and marked the fifth 30-win season under Head Coach Barry Boren over his 11-year tenure.

“I don’t think anyone back in the summer thought we could do this,” said Boren. “We didn’t quite accomplish our goal of being undefeated district champions, so we didn’t get that. But we are the undisputed champions and that was our secon-dary goal.”

They accomplished that goal by winning nine straight district games after dropping the opener to Burnet on Jan. 11.

The most recent win over Brownwood (0-10, 6-20) began with a classic LaCaille pull-up 3-pointer from about 21-feet out for three of his seven first quarter points. Danielak and Cousins each added a basket as well.

Brownwood then made it an 11-7 game before sharp-shooting senior White went on a tear, scoring the quarter’s final eight points on a fast-break layup and back-to-back 3-pointers. After one, Liberty Hill was up 19-7.

In the second quarter, Brownwood could not get anything going, as the Runnin’ Panthers were taking care of business and having fun doing it.

After the Panthers came up with a steal, they had a 2-on-1 break with LaCaille with the ball in the middle, Danielak on his right and Durity-Boatright on his left hip. With a helpless Brownwood defender in front of him, LaCaille made a no-look behind the back pass to Durity-Boatright who finished strong while getting fouled.

While the Lions managed just four points in the second quarter, Liberty Hill scored 19 with six different players contributing. Danielak had five, Callen Mikulencak and LaCaille scored four each, Eyre scored a bucket on a nice post move and White added a basket as well to give the Panthers a 38-11 halftime lead.

Liberty Hill scored 30 more points in the third quarter, topped by 11 from LaCaille and eight more from White. Austin Boliek added a three of his own as the Panthers built a 68-21 advantage with one quarter to play.

The fourth quarter was merely the formality before the Runnin’ Panthers celebrated the district title with the 85-33 victory over the Lions.

The Panthers Den has seemingly been very kind to the home team.

“It’s been a great home-court advantage for us,” Boren explained. “We talked about that before the game. I said, ‘you know what, in my 11 years we have not lost very many times here. A lot of good kids have come through here and a lot of kids come back. So it’s bittersweet. It’s a good way to go out. We’re looking forward to some new challenges, but it’s with some sadness that we leave this place.”

On the court before the game, a ceremony was held recognizing the players’ parents. On Monday those players were instructed to write a letter to their parents, seal it and give it to them when they met on the court for the introductions.

It is a tradition that Coach Boren said is special for everyone involved, especially on a unique occasion such as playing the final game in the Panthers Den.

“I’ll always continue to do it,” he said. “I think our parents deserve it. And I am an English teacher so instead of giving flowers we make our kids write their parents a personal letter, which is sealed; we don’t read it as it’s between them and their parents. I (told them) your parents are going to be emotional, I’m going to be emotional and guess what; you’re going to be emotional also. I don’t think it really hit them until they listened to me talk about the significance of the night and that really tore them up.  A lot of coaches are afraid of this moment, of a game like this. But we always play well on (parents’ night).”

The Runnin’ Panthers will have a warm up against Boerne on Saturday, Feb. 16, in Boerne and will follow that with a bye next Tuesday before finding out who their opponent will be for the area round Feb. 21-23.

“And then, you know what; it’s one and done,” Boren said. “If you lose you cruise, so we’ve got to make sure that we take care of our business. We’re going to try to enjoy this for at least a day or so and then we will start worrying about the other things.”