By Joseph Garcia
LEANDER — The Liberty Hill varsity baseball team is young and somewhat inexperienced, but they are a group with grit, will and heart. Seeking their first win of the season, the Panthers traveled to Leander to take on 4A Rouse on Tuesday and the result was indicative of how the season has gone thus far.
Liberty Hill (0-6) played very well, took an early 4-2 lead and then a bad bounce literally went against the Panthers. In the sixth inning, a ground ball took an unfortunate bounce off the dirt near second base and into the outfield, which sparked a seven-run inning that was the difference in the game.
The Panthers’ 4-2 lead turned into a 9-4 deficit and they were forced to try and rally in the seventh inning.
The rally started off great and the Panthers put up two runs in the final frame, but Rouse’s pitchers managed to avoid an upset and retired the side as Liberty Hill fell on the road 9-6 on a chilly night in Leander.
We probably should have won,” said Liberty Hill Coach Mike Kristan. “Sometimes we just get a bad hop here or there and that’s how it’s been all year. We haven’t gotten those kinds of things happen for us yet.”
Liberty Hill seemingly could not have had a better start having batted around in the first inning, starting with catcher Colby Schmidt who began the game with a leadoff single, followed by stealing second base. Then with one out, Tyler Barrows smoked a double to left center field, scoring Schmidt from second and giving the Panthers a 1-0 lead.
The Panthers then took a 2-0 lead on an RBI single off the bat of Kannon Prior. Then with two outs and two runners on base, Spencer Pennington hit an infield single that scored Liberty Hill’s final run of the first inning to take a 3-0 lead on four hits.
Rouse (4-1) answered back in the bottom of the first with two runs of its own, scoring two runs on three hits. But Liberty Hill starting pitcher Kannon Prior put an end to the scoring, striking out his first batter of the game to end the inning. After one, Liberty Hill led 3-2.
Back to the top of the lineup in the second inning, the Panthers’ Schmidt drilled a base hit to right center field and eventually worked his way to third base. Then with two outs, Schmidt stole home plate after Rouse’s catcher could not handle a deflection, giving Liberty Hill a 4-2 advantage.
Prior pitched masterfully in the third, fourth and fifth innings before being replaced on the mound by Cody Remore. Prior allowed just two runs on five hits while striking out five Rouse Raiders.
Remore got out of the fifth inning unscathed, striking out the final batter of the frame. But the Raiders’ rally was yet to come.
After the Panthers went scoreless in the sixth inning, the Raiders stepped up to bat and the rally started with the fortuitous bounce off the home dirt that began an avalanche of offense. Aided by two Liberty Hill errors, Rouse scored seven on runs on a double, a triple and two singles to take a 9-4 lead.
The gritty Panthers did not lose hope, however, and started the seventh inning with back-to-back walks. Then an RBI single by Remore, plated Barrows from second base to close the gap to 9-5.
Then with one out and a runner at second, Pennington smacked a single that scored Mason Baty from second. The run put the Rouse lead to 9-6 and put the tying run at the plate for the Panthers.
The Rouse closer, however, struck out the final two Liberty Hill batters to end the rally attempt and seal a 9-6 win for the home team.
Liberty Hill scored six runs on nine hits for the night and managed to put a man on base in every inning except for the third. Because of that, Coach Kristan is not fazed by the loss.
“I’m not discouraged by anything,” Kristan said. “We’ve gotten better every game and we’re probably the best 0-6 team in the state of Texas. It’s always discouraging to lose…but I’m not discouraged with our kids. We’ve gotten closer and closer every game. That’s a pretty decent day at the (plate). I think we only went one inning where we didn’t have a guy on base.”
There is no denying that the Panthers could have easily folded up the tent and packed it in after Rouse’s big sixth inning, but they didn’t. And at some point during the season when those bounces do start to go their way, it will be an exciting time in the Liberty Hill dugout.
Coach Kristan, a patient man, knows it’s still very early and that the ultimate goal is to give his players experience while improving en route to the district schedule, which starts on March 19 vs. Brownwood.
“I’m proud of the kids’ effort, they care about it, but right now we just haven’t had a break go our way,” he said. “We’ve only got really two returning starters, so it’s a process.”
Liberty Hill’s next step in the process will be in the form of the Elgin Tournament, which runs from Feb. 28-March 2.