Garza makes an impact at plate, in outfield, and between bases

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Carissa Garza (#9) beats a throw to first at home against Llano High School. Garza, known for her speed, has the second-most stolen bases on the team this season with 12. (Alex Rubio Photo)

Carissa Garza (#9) beats a throw to first at home against Llano High School. Garza, known for her speed, has the second-most stolen bases on the team this season with 12. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By KEITH SPARKS

In her first year on the varsity squad, sophomore Carissa Garza has made an impact in a way that few Panthers have. Though she’s a great leadoff hitter and a fantastic center fielder, Garza’s biggest impact may be felt between the bases.

Garza, who moved to Liberty Hill from Pflugerville just before her freshman year, is second on the team in steals with 12. According to Garza, Head Coach Charice Hankins has given her center fielder some freedom to decide on her own when to steal and when not to steal.

“Sometimes, Coach Hankins will give me the sign, but if I just see that the catcher doesn’t have a good enough arm, or I have the opportunity to beat out the pitch, or it’s a wild pitch or something, I’ll go for it,” Garza said. “With my speed, I’ll usually make it there on time.”

Though Garza is known for her speed, Hankins said it’s her fielding ability in center field that makes the sophomore such a special player.

“She’s just a good kid,” Hankins said. “She’s a great leadoff. She gets on base more than she doesn’t, so she’s a good starter. She’s the best, or one of the best, center fielders off the ball. She’s got a good jump. Even though she’s just a sophomore, she brings a lot of solid leadership to our team, I think.”

As a freshman last season, Garza played on the junior varsity team, but served as a manager for varsity. From the dugout, she was able to foresee the success the Panthers would have this season.

“Just from the talent that I saw last year on the sidelines, I could tell that this team was going to be special,” she said.

Garza started playing tee ball when she was three-years old, and was immediately one of the fastest girls on the field. In that respect, not much has changed over that 13-year span.

“There are some girls that are faster than me on my select team,” Garza said, “but I’m definitely one of the fastest. It kind of came naturally to me, but I’ve definitely worked on getting faster since I first started playing.”

Garza plays on the Texas Blaze select team during the offseason, along with her Liberty Hill teammates Sam Barnett and Kinsey Kuhlmann, although Barnett and Kuhlmann play for the older team. According to Garza, establishing relationships with some of her teammates prior to her first season on varsity has paid dividends.

“We kind of already had that friendship before coming into softball this season,” Garza said. “Then we all moved to the same school, so we knew we had each other’s backs already, and we knew people coming onto the team.”

Garza, like many of her teammates, immediately referenced the team’s bond off the field, in addition to their overwhelming talent, as the biggest factors contributing to their success so far this season.

“First of all, we have a lot of talent on the team,” Garza said. “We have a lot of good talent, and we all connect very well. I feel like we have a very special bond this year. We haven’t had any arguments or things that could bring us down.”

The Panthers, now 25-1-1 on the season and 9-0 in district play, have only three district games remaining before playoffs begin. Garza explained that, in order to stay focused while playing teams that aren’t on the same level as their playoff opponents, the Panthers must keep their goal of a state championship in mind.

“We have that goal, that state-championship-bound goal,” Garza said. “We just know that we have to work hard, and if we stoop down to those teams’ levels, then we’re not going to be able to get better, so we just have to stay focused on what our future goal is.”

According to Garza, Coach Hankins uses that goal as a motivator day-in and day-out to keep her team focused.

“She wants us to stay focused,” Garza said. “Every day, she reminds us of our goal and what we need to do to reach that goal. If she sees something is wrong, she’ll address it to make sure it doesn’t affect that goal.”

Garza shared a sentiment that many of her teammates have echoed throughout the season, regarding what they need to do better in order to win a state championship. Communication between the players on the field is something that each of them has agreed needs to improve.

“Communication on the field, sometimes we lack that,” Garza said. “Due to that, we have errors. If we play a good team, the errors are going to backfire on us.”

Although Garza remains one of the top offensive threats on the team due to her unrivaled speed and knack for making contact at the plate, there is at least one aspect of her offensive game that she wants to improve upon: the long ball that has eluded her thus far.

“I’ve come a long way with my hitting, but I’m aiming for that home-run hit, because I still haven’t hit a home run,” Garza said. “I want to try to hit at least one home run this season. I have to get better at that, and defense can always use work. There’s always room for improvement.”

According to Coach Hankins, Garza’s work ethic, combined with her talent at the plate, will bring the home runs with time. Over the next two-plus years, Hankins expects Garza to become more and more powerful at the plate.

“I think her hitting, you know, she’s slapping, but she also has some power,” Hankins said. “Tonight, she hit a ball really, really hard. I think that, overall, I think she’s just going to get stronger and stronger and stronger, and better and better and better. No one’s going to know how to play her, because she’s going to have both power and speed.”

Although Garza claims there is room for improvement on the defensive end, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that has performed better defensively than the Panthers this season. Liberty Hill has outscored district opponents by a combined total of 120-4. Garza sees it as her job on the defensive end to support her pitchers, each of which has had a fantastic season.

“They know that their defense has their backs,” Garza said. “They just go out there and pitch their heart out, and know that if the girls do hit the ball that we’ve got them. I think that helps them out, knowing that they have a defense to help them.”

Garza also pointed out the leadership of the team’s upperclassmen as one of the reasons the team has performed so well lately, specifically seniors Joely Williamson and her Texas Blaze teammate Sam Barnett.

“If you’re down, they’ll come up to you and pick you back up,” Garza said. “They’re very enthusiastic and exciting. They really keep the team up. If we’re down or something, they’ll be like ‘It’s okay. We got this.’”

Garza and the Panthers play Salado on Thursday, April 13, at home at 6:45 p.m., Llano on Tuesday, April 18, at Llano High School, and Lampasas at home on Friday, April 21, for their final home district game. On Tuesday, April 25, their quest for a state championship begins.

Sports@LHIndependent.com

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