Historic season leads to title shot

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

The expectation in Liberty Hill is to always compete for a title. But even great teams in great programs don’t get title shots year in and year out.

A Panther basketball team that entered the year with the same expectation wasn’t sure how far they’d go, but they knew they had something special, and were determined to work for the chance.

“They’ve put the work in, they’ve played with that kind of commitment and I think anyone who watches them play says those guys play hard,” said Head Coach Barry Boren. “I’m really proud of them and certainly happy we’re getting a chance to do this. I told our kids last week that I wrote a
bracket out last summer and it had us beating West Oso in the semis and Navasota in the finals. There’s a lot of other stuff that has happened in between, but that’s how I saw it and that was my goal and we did it.”

The connection between coach and players is evident as Boren thinks back on all the successful campaigns he’s led on the court in Liberty Hill, logging a number of 30-win seasons and Regional Tournament appearances, but never getting over the hump.

After a big win over West Oso and only Navasota standing between the Panthers and that state trip, the players wouldn’t be denied.

“The night before the regional final game we were in our hotel room and we said ‘Let’s not do it for us, let’s do it for Coach Boren and get him to his first state tournament,’” said Senior Jareck Naylor. “We went into it with that mindset Saturday and just fought hard to get him there.”

The lack of a state tournament appearance was never something Boren talked about, but it was difficult to keep it off the minds of the players who have developed such a love for their coach.

“Our seniors were very aware that I’ve never gone to state,” Boren said. “There was an underlying presence there that they almost played with a sense of desperation at times. They seem to like me, they like one another, they like basketball and they’re pretty good at it. You take that whole combination and stir it in together and it comes out like it does. They are definitely deserving of being where they are.”

The three seniors on this year’s squad point back to one moment, where they know the drive to this goal began – last year’s loss at the Regional Tournament.

“We’ve been working hard ever since last year ended,” said Senior Parker McCurdy. “We knew we wanted to get back to the Regional Tournament and win it to get to state. We’ve just been working hard, putting in the extra effort.”

With the game Saturday against Navasota close through the overtime, Boren could not help but wonder if his team might end its season with the same heartache and frustration his 2012 team did.

“I always felt like I wasn’t doing what I needed to do to get us where we needed to go,” he said. “In the waining moments of that game the other night, I had visions of that 2012 game. It really has haunted me for seven years and I’ve replayed that game in my mind a million times wondering what we could have done to make the outcome different.”

But the coach coached, the players played, and they all did it for one another and won the game.

“Things happen in due time and I told the kids, ‘It’s our team, it’s our game, it’s our time,’” Boren said. “It just came out to be that way. We feel lucky. Above all else I want us to be very grateful and humble because I have several friends who have coached their entire career and never gotten to do this.”

The elephant in the room when this season tipped off was not the question of whether the Panthers could make it to the state tournament or not, but when would Boren notch his 700th win?

At the end of the 2018 season, Boren had 699 victories, so it was only a matter of time.

Despite struggling mightily in fall action against Hutto, the Panthers came out against the same team in the season opener and made a statement that got this season off on the right foot and gave the players a chance to honor their coach.

“When we were about to play our first game of the season, I tried to make it about our kids, not that win,” Boren said. “They won it, and they were prepared because after the game they presented me with a banner. They already had it made. They had the ball, they had the banner, they were ready. That tells you what kind of kids we have.”

Friends past and present have reached out to Boren all week, sending well wishes for the Panthers as they head to San Antonio.

“I can’t tell you how many people from my past have contacted me in the last 48 hours,” Boren said. “I have former assistants who are now superintendents, I have former assistants who are coaches of their own programs and former players who have gone on to bigger and better things. It’s really touching, it’s just a culmination of a lot of years.”

The outstanding season, where the Panthers have already posted a 33-6 record, claimed a district title and helped their coach pad a 700-plus win career, is something Boren said belongs to everyone who has worked through the years to make the Liberty Hill basketball program what it is today.

“This was not just for us, but this is for all of those kids that came before us that created this legacy that is our program,” Boren said. “When I wrote my cover letter to apply for this job, I wrote that my desire was to be in a place where on game night the game was the place to be and I think that’s an apt description for Liberty Hill. On game night, whatever the game is, that’s where the people are.”

Win or lose, the lifelong connection between the coach and his players is already evident as Boren tears up a bit discussing this team.

“I know this. There’s no one that cares more about what they do than I do,” he said. “I’m sure there are plenty of coaches out there that know more about (basketball) than I do, but I would challenge anybody to say they care more than I do. You can’t fake sincerity because they can sense it a mile away. If it’s not genuine they know it. I really think that’s part of our bond.”

Whether it’s the community, past players, parents, coaches or other players, everyone around the Panther basketball team has played a part.

“It’s been a collective effort for all of us, sharing the same goal and that’s really helped us get to this point,” Naylor said.

With one goal accomplished, the final goal is simple – come home with a state title.

“We’ve all had the mindset of going to state and that’s been our goal,” said Senior Cade Cole. “All of us play a part in our success and where we’ve gotten so far.”

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