District gauntlet bodes well for Lady Panthers

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By Scott Akanewich
Sports Editor
Last season, the Lady Panthers of Liberty Hill ran right into a buzzsaw once they reached the postseason.

Following a straight-sets victory over Bandera in the opening round of the playoffs, head coach Gretchen Peterson’s club was defeated by a strong Caldwell side in the second round in five sets – a team which would go on to advance all the way to the Class 4A state semifinals before losing to eventual state champions Fulshear.

In other words, it’s exactly the kind of team the Lady Panthers need to be ready to compete against once they reach the playoffs and one way to ready oneself is to face rugged competition in the district schedule.

Last fall, Liberty Hill breezed through its district, not even losing a single set against the likes of Burnet, Lampasas and Taylor.

However, this year, replace those names with Cedar Park, Rouse and Georgetown after moving up to Class 5A and the difference is like night and day, to put it very mildly, said Peterson.

“This group has responded well to the new challenges – they’ve really thrived in the new competition and competitive atmosphere,” she said. “It’s been nice going into matches knowing we’re going to be tested.”

In fact, Peterson has used pressure-packed contests down the final stretch of the regular season to simulate what her players will face in the playoffs – something she couldn’t do in years past.

“We’ve started mentally preparing before our district matches as if we’re entering a playoff match,” she said. “We’re trying to replicate that as much as we can.”

Case in point was the Lady Panthers’ 3-2 (25-16, 25-21, 21-25, 18-25, 15-11) away victory over Cedar Park on Nov. 4 – a match which saw Liberty Hill win the first two sets against the Timberwolves before dropping the next two, only to win a fifth-set tiebreaker.

After having been defeated earlier in the season at home by Cedar Park in straight sets, the fact her team showed the resolve to rally for a win under such intense conditions proved to be a bellwether for the program, said Peterson.

“We want to get better each time we step on the court and we definitely got better against them,” she said. “It was such a great growing and learning experience — a lot of positives and learning coming from that match which we’ll be able to lean on moving forward.”

Junior middle blocker Ailie Hair was one of those who benefited a great deal from the experience.

“I think we had a good challenge and it helped us get ready for the teams we’re going to face in the playoffs,” said Hair. “It gets us more fired up and helps us play better when we all come together to help face the team we’re playing against.”

Hair added the entire season has not only prepared the team for what lies ahead, but herself individually, as well.

“I think I’ve grown in a way that will help me in the future with better adapting to change and figuring out how be able to work around certain situations,” she said.

One hallmark of the victory over the Timberwolves – who were on a 12-match winning streak at the time and were undefeated in district play going into the contest – was the fact the Lady Panthers were able to constantly stem the tide when it came to keeping each set close and not letting the hosts get on a hot streak, which is already a tangible result of what they’ve already been through thus far, said Peterson.

“I definitely see them becoming more mentally tough,” she said. “We’re able to get out of tough spots and stop big runs quicker and we’re responding better to mistakes – one mistake isn’t turning into three or four – our confidence is more consistent, isn’t shaken and we’re really keeping our composure when we’re in tight situations.”

Hair agreed with Peterson’s assessment.

“We’ve faced challenging teams this season and in the past, we didn’t have that much competition to prepare us,” said Hair. “The confidence of our team is going go up seeing how we’ve beaten the number one team in our district.”

According to Peterson, her players are now harvesting the crops from the seeds which were planted last year, but took time to come to fruition.

“We’re the same team as last year, but we’re just more focused and goal-driven in a different way,” said Peterson. “They’re more mature and closer, they’ve developed that chemistry now for two years and each player is better and more experienced – that makes a huge difference. Also, they challenge and push each other in practice – we have to focus on not just going through the motions – make every play and every touch count.”

Effort and work ethic aren’t issues for Hair – especially when it comes to the practice court, she said. 

“Giving 110 percent in practice every day is getting me ready physically and mentally for the playoffs,” said Hair.

Which are exactly the kind of sentiments Peterson wants to hear from her players to help avoid the postseason disappointment of the past two seasons, when the Lady Panthers were knocked out of the playoffs in the first and second rounds after dominant regular seasons.

For her, there’s one thing above all her players have developed through the ups and downs of a tough district schedule, she said.

“Resiliency,” said Peterson. “They’ve faced challenges and distractions at various times, but they’ve never been  knocked down, they’ve found a way to bounce back and also trust. They trust each other, they lean on each other and depend on each other. They play for one another and work to find a way to contribute in everything they do.” 

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