Knight will protect Panthers’ net at regional tourney

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Goalie Caleb Knight will protect the Panther net in state tournament this week. (Sean Shapiro Photo)

Goalie Caleb Knight will protect the Panther net in regional tournament this week. (Sean Shapiro Photo)

By SEAN SHAPIRO

In many ways, Caleb Knight is nothing like Roy Hobbs, the fictional outfielder in Bernard Malumad’s 1952 novel, “The Natural.”

Knight hasn’t had a freak accident that derailed a promising baseball career. And he certainly hasn’t had to deal with the swarming off-field circus that the fictional Hobbs juggles in the novel.

But there is an alarming parallel.

In the same way Hobbs was told to “knock the cover off the ball,” and then connected for a triple for the fictional New York Knights, Knight has been told “to stop the soccer ball,” and he’s been pretty good at it for the real-life Liberty Hill Panthers.

And by the way, Knight is a converted center fielder. He’s traded baseball gloves and batter’s boxes for goalie gloves and 18-yard boxes during his senior season, and he’s helped lead the Panthers to the Class 4A, Region IV tournament in their inaugural UIL season.

“He’s a natural athlete,” Liberty Hill coach Darren Bauer said. “There was some footwork he had to work on, it is soccer, but he really took to the position. It’s amazing to think he’d never played the position before.”

It’s also one of the most difficult positions in sports.

While Liberty Hill has outplayed and outclassed many of its opponents this year, Knight has been a bystander watching his teammates weave in and out of opponents’ defenses. But he can’t get too caught in the Panthers’ offensive display — which has scored 72 goals. A quick turn can quickly put the senior goalie in the spotlight.

It’s been particularly nerve-wracking the past two games, as Liberty Hill just moved past Boerne and Giddings in overtime and a shootout.

“I think it took a couple years off of my life,” Knight said. “I was so nervous. After one game, I was just relieved it was over. After the other I celebrated more. It’s tough. Everyone else gets to be moving around and using that nervous energy. I just have to manage it in my head.”

However, he’s doing it — and he really couldn’t put it into words Wednesday when talking about how to win the mental battles — Liberty Hill will take it. The Panthers will also gladly take his timely saves that could help Liberty Hill reach the Class 4A state tournament with a pair of wins this weekend at the Class 4A, Region IV tournament in McAllen.

It’s uncharted territory for the Panthers.

On the map it’s a six-hour drive south and a goal kick away from the Mexican border. As a program, it’s a high-water mark for a team that didn’t have any history before, and has already surpassed its preseason goals.

“I think we’ve done everything we wanted to accomplish this year, if you go by the goals we set,” Knight said. “Of course, we want to keep winning now, that never changes. We always want to go out and beat the other team.”

Grulla, from Rio Grande City, is the next team on Liberty Hill’s radar. Grulla is 13-2-2 and has outscored opponents 74-14. Other than that, not much is known about Liberty Hill’s regional semifinal opponent.

“It’s hard to tell,” Bauer said. “We looked at scores and reached out to some other people who may have played them. But we have no common opponents, and really no way of figuring out who or how they play. We do know this: if they’ve reached it this far, they must be a good team.”

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