By Joseph Garcia
GLEN ROSE — It was not supposed to turn out this way, but it did.
Brimming with momentum, confidence and talent, the No. 2 ranked Liberty Hill Lady Panthers were widely thought to be the favorites to come out of Region I and play for a state title. It was not meant to be, however.
Following their bye, the Lady Panthers were pitted against a tough Iowa Park team ranked No. 17 in the state in the Area Championship at Glen Rose High School. The best-of-three series began Thursday, May 2, on a cold, breezy and misty evening in which Iowa Park squeezed out a 1-0 victory.
The next day, the Lady Panthers figured it was their time. It certainly looked as if the series would go to a third game with Liberty Hill taking a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the fifth inning. However, with the wind swirling around, Iowa Park managed to hit a few bloop singles that fell in play to keep the game alive.
With Liberty Hill just needing one more out to send it to a Game 3, back-to-back singles gave Iowa Park a 6-4 lead it would not relinquish, ending the Lady Panthers’ season and playoff run. Liberty Hill’s final record for the season is 27-4.
For Liberty Hill Coach Charice Hankins, the main reason for the early exit was not taking advantage of scoring opportunities by leaving too many runners on base.
“Bottom line is we left 21 runners on base in our two playoff games vs. Iowa Park, and that killed our chance to take control of the series,” Hankins said. “When we lost Thursday, we left 10 runners on, but I felt Iowa Park’s pitcher controlled our hitting by being very effective, hard throwing and keeping us from getting too much of the ball and getting into any rhythm.”
As for Friday’s game, Coach Hankins said she never thought they were going to lose.
“We came out excited, motivated and focused on being aggressive and we scored first, and I felt we had control of our destiny the whole game,” she said. “Our hitters were making their pitcher throw a lot of pitches and we battled her at the plate every at bat.”
In Game 2, Liberty Hill nabbed a 2-0 lead in the second inning after Baylie Bevers reached first base on an error, which allowed Alyson Sulak to score. The next batter was Delaney Red, who put down a perfect bunt for a single to load the bases for Paige Lafferty. Lafferty grounded out, but the second run scored during her at-bat on a passed ball for the 2-0 score.
Iowa Park came right back to tie it up 2-2 in the third inning on a two-out single and a passed ball.
With Samantha Junkin dealing on the mound, the Lady Panthers kept it close and finally broke through for two more runs in the fourth inning.
With the bases loaded and one out, senior Presley Walker smacked a single to center field that scored Lafferty and Kallen Floyd to make the score 4-2.
Iowa Park made it 4-3 in the fifth inning on a solo home run that sailed over the center field wall, leaving Liberty Hill with no room for error.
Looking to close the game out, Junkin stayed on the mound and struck out the first batter, allowed a single to the second and struck out the third. The Lady Panthers were one out away from a win until back-to-back singles gave Iowa Park a 6-4 lead.
Liberty Hill had the last at-bat, but could not get anything going as its season ended in a flurry.
“The game went by so fast,” Hankins explained. “We were up 2-0, tied up 2-2, we went up 4-2, they hit a home run to make it 4-3, and we went into the seventh inning with a ‘close out plan’ with a one run lead. We had two outs and only needed one out to get us to game three and they (hit) a couple of blooper balls on which they ended up scoring, and that took a little wind out of our sail.”
Hankins said she felt like her team beat the pitcher for six innings and they won 20 of their 21 outs. But that last out, Iowa Park won.
“And at that point of the game, it is the only out that mattered,” she said.
Yes, it was an incredible regular season for the Lady Panthers in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. But that just goes to show how much young talent is gushing out of Liberty Hill’s softball program.
They are good, but the emphasis is on their youth. Coach Hankins figures that was another big reason for the short postseason run.
“I think lack of playoff experience was a part of our tentativeness,” she said. “This was technically a rebuilding year for us. Coaches and players have always felt like this was a strong team and we had what it took to continue to play deep in the playoffs, and had a shot at making it back to state.”
The reality for the Lady Panthers was that there were only three starters back from last year’s state semifinal team and they fielded six starters this season that had no previous playoff experience.
Still, standards were high for Liberty Hill as it carried a top ranking for most of the season at No. 2. And with the bulk of those players returning, the future is bright yet again for Liberty Hill softball in 2014.
“I think our expectations were high all season, and we won 27 games, some of which were huge,” Hankins said. “But when it came time to play for the Area game, the stakes are high and no one wants to make mistakes, so it leads to a little safe playing. Next year, these kids will have the experience, and I know they will do better – and there will not be 21 runs left on base.”