Lady Panthers enter playoffs as district champs on hot streak

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The Lady Panther soccer team will play Gonzales in the first round of playoffs at 6:30 p.m. today, March 23, in Giddings. This will be the first time the two programs have played each other. (Shannon Hofmann Photo)

By Paul Livengood

For the first time in program history, the Liberty Hill Lady Panthers have qualified for the playoffs as district soccer champions.

The road to state should be easier than it was the previous two seasons, when the Lady Panthers finished third in the district standings in 2014, and second in 2015. As the number one team from District 25, the Lady Panthers have the luxury of playing the fourth-place team from District 26, as opposed to the second or third qualifier. Head Coach Darren Bauer won’t let that get to the girls’ heads, however.

“I do not put too much emphasis on (being district champs),” Bauer said. “We have to go through everyone no matter what.”

Bauer has been preaching to his team that there are still “seven more.” It takes seven straight wins to win the state championship, and every game from this point forward is win or go home.

Liberty Hill will face off against Gonzales in the first round today, March 23, at 6:30 p.m. in Giddings.

This will be the first-ever matchup between the two programs. The Panthers have experience on their sides, as they have qualified for the playoffs every season the team has existed (since 2014), and Gonzales has never made the playoffs until this season.

With no history head-to-head, the only commonality the teams share is a blowout win against Florence. Liberty Hill defeated Florence on the road 9-0, while the Lady Apaches handed the Lady Buffaloes a 7-0 whooping at home.

Gonzales will be led by junior Fernanda Velazquez, who is the team’s leading goal scorer with 11 on the year, and the Lady Apaches’ top assister, Bethany Gayton (eight assists on the year).

Gaby Garcia and Kyla Boliek lead the charge on offense for the Panthers, as the duo share a team lead with 14 goals each this season. Alex Svetlik enters her last playoff run as the team’s leading assister with 11.

The Lady Panthers will be without some key pieces defensively in the first round, and will need players to step up in other roles. Liberty Hill needs to find an answer in goal. Mackenzy Turner is still coming back from injury, and back up keeper Miranda Durkin will not be available, either, due to other school obligations. The Lady Panthers will also miss senior center back Kassidy Freeman due to an injury suffered in the season finale against Little River Academy.

Fortunately, Bauer has been plugging in players in different spots all year long during blowout wins to give younger kids experience in new positions. Therefore, maneuvering some pieces around shouldn’t be a major issue for the Lady Panthers.

“It makes it easier, because our players on the bench are able to be versatile,” Briana Stark said. “And (Bauer) works them in with the starting players, so they can become better players themselves by playing with the starters.”

Alex Svetlik remains confident that her younger teammates can fill in the holes where players will be missing.

“We have other players—I feel confident,” Svetlik said. “If we can just put Kyla up top and score quickly, then we just got to do what we have to do. Work with the players we have.”

All Bauer wants to see from the Lady Panthers is a “killer instinct early on in the game.” He feels if they do that, then Liberty Hill has a solid chance of advancing.

Liberty Hill has never advanced further than the third round in program history. In order to do so, Bauer says the Lady Panthers have to believe in each other. Svetlik and Stark echoed the same sentiment.

“We are capable of winning state, but it’s just the mindset that will either take us there or not,” Stark said. “We all need to believe we can do it. Not just one or two people.”

A team must win seven straight games to take it all home, and the Lady Panthers have shown they are capable of stringing together a win streak on that magnitude. Liberty Hill currently rides a 10-game win streak entering the playoffs.

“It gives us confidence in what we are trying to accomplish on the field, and maybe gives that edge to be able to try something different if we need to,” Bauer said.

The stage is set and Svetlik said it best: The Lady Panthers just need to do what they do, and the rest will take care of itself.

Paul@LHIndependent.com

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