By Joseph Garcia
First it was the football Panther Stadium, then the Panthers Den and now the baseball and softball fields. All were bid farewell this athletic season, with the latter taking place Tuesday night in District 8-3A matchups against Lampasas.
The Hollywood script played out like it should have — with the Panthers winning.
On Senior Night, none the less, the baseball Panthers completed another comeback victory with an 11-6 final that clinched the District 8-3A Championship, while the Lady Panthers clinched at least a share of the title with a 4-0 win.
For coaches Mike Kristan and Charice Hankins, it was an emotional night indeed.
“Anytime you can win your last home game on Senior Night for a district championship, those things you remember for a long, long time,” Kristan said. “Hopefully they do bigger and better things, but it certainly is something they are excited about. It’s always nice to be district champions. Obviously, we have bigger goals too, so we celebrate this and move on and see if we can play a little bit in the playoffs. It’s always bittersweet with the seniors being done.”
There were five seniors who played their final home baseball game as Panthers. Kyle Marshall, Spencer Pennington, Austin Zamarripa, Tyler Cannon and Tyler Barrows have all made an impact this season and have seemingly done a marvelous job leading their team to a district crown.
Coach Hankins only had three seniors on her team this season, but each of them has put her imprint on this season’s No. 2 ranked team. Each leads in her own way.
Shortstop Paige Lafferty, first baseman Presley Walker and outfielder Courtney Weems all played their final official home game on Tuesday night.
“It is always amazing how quickly four years with these kids can fly,” Hankins said. “It seems like yesterday they were all freshmen, and with a blink of an eye and many games later, I am watching these kids that have developed into strong, aggressive and determined leading seniors. Paige, Presley and Courtney have all contributed in their own way and have really helped lead this team this year.”
As for the fields themselves, many memories will be cherished by the players who played on them and, of course, the coaches who have spent hours upon hours in the elements to teach young men and women how to be better players and good people.
It is difficult for each head coach to come to grips with the fact that no more official games will be played on their home away from home.
“It’s hard to believe,” Kristan said following Tuesday’s game. “I remember the first set of kids, but I don’t remember the outcomes. There are one or two big moments. I’m going to miss it. I’ve been coming here for 14 years and I’ve probably shut that gate 5,000 times in my life.”
Kristan will always remember the students and other fans posting up beyond the wall in the center and right field. He also reflected on the intimacy of the field and its proximity to the bleachers, which will be a change at the new facilities.
“The guys on the second deck, the bonfires, the cooking, in the old days some of them pulled out couches on the flat beds – you can’t replace that,” he said. “I’m definitely going to miss the closeness and the ambiance of this field.”
For Coach Hankins, the most important thing about the softball field is the history that it holds. There have been so many great players who have played on the field and a lot of sweat and tears were left there through the years.
There may be a warm up game at the softball field next week, but as for official games the book is closed.
“We really don’t want to think about the finality of this field yet,” Hankins explained. “It has served us well and we have been happy playing here since day one. I have enjoyed every game and every season on this field. Our kids, this is all they have ever played on, even coming to LH Softball Camp, this is the only field they have known as high schoolers.”
Hankins hopes to use the old field in the future for practices or tournament games. She said seeing how the new field will be all turf, getting on dirt every now and then for practice will be important. It will also be a way to stay connected with their past.
She reflected on the first ever game she coached on that field nearly 10 years ago.
“We got to play on it toward the last part of our district schedule,” she said. “I think it was our seniors’ last home district game. It was a bit rough, not as seasoned and smooth as it is now. But the kids were proud and excited to be able to play here before they graduated.”
Having logged so many hours on the field, it is a part of who the Lady Panthers are and represents all those who played there before, Hankins said.
“It is a respect of that history and gives our team the vision to carry on the fight and it is precious to us,” she said. “We will fight to hold on to all that makes us the strong team that we are. We are Liberty Hill softball through and through.”