By KEITH SPARKS
2017 was, in many ways, a transition year for Liberty Hill athletics. In others, however, the Panthers continued to be a model of consistency, appearing in State Championships and replacing long-time coaches with former assistants familiar with the system.
In January 2017, Liberty Hill Head Football Coach and Athletic Director of 16 years, Jerry Vance, announced his retirement. Shortly thereafter, he was replaced by Jeff Walker, who ran the same Slot-T offense as the Panthers while he was coaching at Rogers High School after serving as an assistant under Vance at Liberty Hill High School for nearly a decade.
In April, Head Athletic Trainer of 15 years, Charles “Doc” Harrington, also announced his retirement, and in May, his wife, Melissa Harrington, was promoted from an assistant’s role to the Head Athletic Trainer position.
In June, Head Softball Coach of 25 years, Charice Hankins, announced her retirement, as well. Less than two months later, Kristen Brewer was hired as Head Coach after spending 11 years as an assistant under Hankins.
Despite lots of change within the Liberty Hill athletics department, which also included a number of assistants and junior high coaches transitioning from one role to another, the LHISD staff found a way to establish some consistency. According to Walker, that makes the transition much smoother for the students.
“I think it made it a lot easier on the kids,” Walker said, “because they’re familiar, and it’s not somebody new coming in. It’s somebody that’s been around already, so it wasn’t that you were bringing in somebody that nobody knew. I knew a lot of these kids already that had older brothers I had coached, and I knew a lot of them from when I was at the junior high. I think it’s been a pretty smooth transition.”
For the coaches, Walker said the familiarity that he and many of the others have with each other from his previous stint at Liberty Hill made the transition much smoother than it would have been otherwise, but he also understands that change isn’t easy, regardless of how smooth it may seem.
Head Volleyball Coach Gretchen Peterson shared Walker’s sentiments, echoing the idea that his previous experience at Liberty Hill made the change relatively easy from her perspective.
“Coach Jeff Walker had been at Liberty Hill before, and he really lets his coaches coach,” Peterson said. “He trusts us to do our jobs. He was very supportive of our program and our girls. Everything kept rolling in the same direction, so it was a good change, but business as usual for all of us.”
That consistency has already paid off, as evidenced by deep playoff runs from the football, volleyball, and cross country programs in their first year under a new athletic director.
The varsity football team went on their deepest playoff run since 2014, finishing with a loss to Waco La Vega in the State Quarterfinal after playing nail biter after nail biter up to that point, beating Boerne, Rockport-Fulton, and China Spring in the first three rounds.
Although Walker and his players were ultimately disappointed with the outcome, most of those from the outside looking in would agree that the Panthers exceeded expectations, despite dealing with a number of injuries to starters on both sides of the ball.
Once all was said and done, junior running back Kyle Harrison was named to the AP Conference 4A First-Team All-State Offense as the only Panther to take home All-State honors.
The varsity volleyball team made their second straight State Semifinal appearance and took home yet another undefeated District Championship, picking up right where they left off at the end of 2016. The Lady Panthers finished the 2017 season with an overall record of 36-14, ending its season with a loss to Needville in four sets in the State Semifinal.
After losing some important seniors over the summer, the class of 2018 volleyball players stepped up in their senior seasons, as Gabi Sommerfield, Brooklynn Jones, and Jenna Lyons were each named to the Texas Girls Coaches Association 2017 Conference 4A All-State Team.
“It was a great season, overall,” Peterson said. “Many of our players received individual accolades at the District, Region and State level. We graduate five amazing seniors that were big contributors for our program.”
Liberty Hill’s girls’ varsity cross country team, which also lost some important seniors, including star runner McKynzie King who is now on scholarship at Texas State, made it to State, as well. While most teams at the State Meet were stacked with at least one star runner that stood out amongst the rest, the Lady Panthers did it as a tight-knit team without a superstar.
The Panther boys’ cross country team also made it to State with a similar makeup, relying on a team effort to add to their points total as opposed to running a one- or two-man show.
“We got both teams to the State Meet, and they did the best they could on that day,” said Head Coach Kim Holt. “All four teams, varsity and junior varsity, won district this year, and they performed well enough at the Regional Meet to make it back to the State Meet. The girls finished 12th and the guys finished 15th, overall, at the State Meet. From the athletes we had at State, we only graduate two seniors, so we have a lot of kids coming back.”
The Liberty Hill tennis program underwent some changes, as well, as Head Coach Brittni Fausett was hired in December of 2016. In May of 2017, mixed doubles partners Gunnar Ortega and Kennedy Coleman made it all the way to the State Tournament as sophomores in their first year playing together.
The fall brought on some adversity, however, as the Panther tennis team struggled as a whole during district play. Come playoff time, the team was able to advance to the area playoff round, where its season ended in a 10-5 decision to Waco Robinson.
“I was proud of my kids and think they were happy, overall, with how they did,” Fausett said.
“Every match this season, we continued to get better, and that will help us rolling into next season. Overall, we had a great season. Unfortunately, we just met Robinson pretty early. I think throughout the season, you saw our team consistently improve to get better and better. As a coach, steady improvement is all you can ask for. It was a great season, and I am proud of how they competed. It was my first team tennis season with the kids, and they did a great job. We can only improve from here.”
The varsity girls’ soccer team had a strong showing in 2017, as the team went 15-8 on the season and 11-1 in district play on the way to their first district championship. The team ended its season in the area quarterfinal round of the playoffs with a loss 2-0 loss to Wimberley.
The varsity boys’ soccer team went 15-9-1 on the 2017 season, including a 9-2 record in district play. The team ended their season in the area playoff round against Bandera in a 1-0 loss. The seniors that played in that game were the first to start the program, and Bauer said they gave it everything they had while establishing Liberty Hill as a legitimate soccer program in the state of Texas.
“We started this thing four years ago with this senior class,” Bauer said. “I knew four years ago it was going to be special. They put in everything with me for those four years. They made this program what it is. People know who we are and a lot of people don’t want to play us.”
The Lady Panther softball team had their most successful season in the program’s history, dominating district play from start to finish and making it all the way to the State Championship in Hankins’ final season as Head Coach. They were in it until the very end, losing by only one run as they fell to Krum by a final score of 4-3.
Seniors Joely Williamson and Sam Barnett were named to the TGCA Conference 4A All-State Team. Williamson was also named District MVP while Barnett was named the district’s Offensive Player of the Year. Sophomore Amber Wiggins was named the district’s Pitcher of the Year, as well, while a number of others took home First- and Second-Team All-District honors.
“2017 is the year to remember,” Brewer said. “That was a very special team. That team had a lot of team chemistry, a lot of talent, and the drive to play for each other and to prove something. Obviously, we had high hopes and expectations for that team, and we wanted to go all the way, but still tremendously proud of those girls and what they accomplished.”
The Panther baseball team was yet another that finished the season with an undefeated district championship, going 27-5, overall, and 12-0 in district play for the first time in the baseball program’s history.
The Panthers made an impact in the playoffs, as well, beating Navasota in the first round and Madisonville in the second before falling to China Spring two games to one in the third round.
Sophomore Chandler Freeman was ultimately named District MVP and senior Connor Thompson was named the district’s Defensive MVP, while eight other Panthers took home First and Second Team All-District awards.
After a tumultuous start to the 2016-2017 season, the Panther boys’ basketball team ended on a high note, winning nine of its 12 district games to secure a spot in the playoffs and finish with an overall record of 20-14.
The Panthers were able to make it to the second round of the playoffs after beating Smithville by a final score of 70-33. In the second round, Liberty Hill fell to Waco La Vega in a hard-fought 77-71 loss to end their season.
Seniors Zach Lord and Josh Sudekum were named First-Team All-District, while senior Clayton Kuhlmann, sophomore Bryce Truslow, and Freshman Carson Perkins were named to the Second Team.
The Liberty Hill varsity girls’ basketball team had a phenomenal 2016-2017 season as another Panther program to make it to State. The team went 36-3, overall, and went a perfect 12-0 in district play. The team posted one of the best records in school history while advancing to the State Final for the first time in school history. The Lady Panthers ultimately lost 40-30 against Argyle to become the Conference 4A runner-up.
Head Coach Chris Lange said he was proud of all the team accomplished in 2017 and it was a great experience for all the girls on that team.
“To have these kids get to experience something like this, and knowing how hard they worked, all you can do is hold your head high and be proud of your team,” Lange said following their loss in the State Final. “I am super proud of them.”
Both Sedona Prince and Kandyn Faurie were named to the TGCA Conference 4A All-State Team following their incredible season.