By Joseph Garcia
The way the Liberty Hill baseball Panthers’ season began it would have seemingly been outrageous to say they would finish as one of the best 3A teams in the state, but that is precisely what happened.
Liberty Hill advanced to the third round of the playoffs after putting together an improbable run following a 0-9 start to the season. Once the Panthers got on a roll, they were very tough to stop and finished the regular season winning 18 of their last 20 games, including a nine-game winning streak.
The Panthers nearly ran the table (9-1) on the way to winning the District 8-3A Championship and ended with a 19-12 regular season record. By winning the district, Liberty Hill was awarded a first-round bye, automatically advancing to the second round of the playoffs.
While two-thirds of the 3A Texas schools were already looking to next season, Coach Mike Kristan and the Panthers were scheming for their next playoff opponent.
“Nobody in the world would have bet we would have gone this far after starting off 0-9 and to do the things we did,” Kristan said. “The kids have to take some pride in that. Obviously the boys wanted more, but starting off the season the way we did and to win district and to play a couple rounds in the playoffs is pretty special. It’s a tribute to the kids and them not giving up.”
This season, Coach Kristan had five seniors on his team, which headed a talented, yet young group.
Tyler Barrows, Tyler Cannon, Kyle Marshall, Spencer Pennington and Austin Zamarripa each produced special moments for Liberty Hill, helping lead the Panthers to a memorable season.
Barrows was named to the Academic All-District team and was an All-District Honorable Mention. Marshall was also an All-District Honorable Mention. Zamarripa and Cannon were also Academic All-District selections.
“I can’t ask for any more,” Kristan said. “I’m so excited and thankful for what our seniors did and what they’ve done for four years, but I’m also excited about the guys coming back.”
The Panthers have a plethora of talented players returning next season, including 11 seniors and at least two juniors. Many of those young players were recognized in the District 8-3A awards, including Defensive Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year.
Junior pitcher Dan Rumley was named District 8-3A Defensive Player of the Year, while sophomore Jason Reeves earned Newcomer of the Year honors.
Liberty Hill All-District First-Teamers include Rumley, junior catcher Colby Schmidt and junior outfielder Tristan Heidelberg. Making the All-District Second-Team were junior pitchers Kannon Prior and Cody Remore, junior first baseman Mason Baty and sophomore outfielder Jason Reeves. Junior Jake Stalder was also named as an All-District Honorable Mention.
In addition the fine athletes, Coach Kristan has excellent students returning next season as well.
Tyler Vickers, Reeves, Schmidt, Heidelberg and Prior were all named to the Academic All-District Team.
“It’s nice to have a good group coming back,” Kristan explained. “I’ve been blessed here for 10 years that we’ve had pretty good groups come back. You reload and not rebuild and that’s kind of what we’ve been fortunate enough to do over the last 10 years. It is a tribute to the kids and their parents and the community.”
A new beginning
Kristan’s enthusiasm does not end with the wonderful students and players he has returning next season. There is also the matter of making the switch to a new field with a different playing surface.
While 2013 was certainly a season to remember, new and exciting changes are in store for the Panthers in 2014.
“I can’t ask for anything more, especially now we’re going to be in a great, new facility,” Kristan said. “I’m going to have to figure out how to practice now that we’re actually going to have the field on campus and on turf. I’m looking forward to that and the kids are excited.”
So, will the players next season have to adjust to the way the baseball bounces on the new Matrix Turf? Will the ball move faster? Should the players take a step back in bunt coverage?
These are all questions Coach Kristan will mull over and research over the offseason in preparation for another playoff run next spring.
“I’ve certainly thought about it, but I don’t have any answers (yet),” Kristan said. “I’m going to have to pick some people’s brains to see exactly how much different it is. Some of our kids throughout the summer play on turf, so I’ll have to pick their brains, too.”