Lady Panthers open district play with win

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By Scott Akanewich
Sports Editor
When Gretchen Peterson became Liberty Hill head volleyball coach 16 years ago, racking up numbers was the last thing on her mind – and still is.
So, when the longtime Purple-and-Gold sideline boss picked up the 400th win of her coaching career in a 3-0 (25-19, 25-15, 25-14) road victory against Burnet on Friday, she was quick to deflect credit for reaching the milestone.
“I look at how many cool kids I’ve had come through the program over the years,” said Peterson. “It’s great to have been able to meet so many great people and to have former players come back – all the relationships and memories – that’s what great.”
As for the match against the Lady Dawgs, the visitors began the first set off the pace a bit as Burnet got out to an early 4-2 advantage.
But, Lilli Wilkins got the first of her team-leading eight kills on the night, along with a pair from Ailie Hair — who recorded seven – to bring the Lady Panthers level. Kindsee Escamilla then teamed up with Hair for a big block at the net and a 6-4 lead before Burnet battled back to even the score at 7-7.
But, that was the last time the Lady Dawgs were on level terms for the rest of the set, as Haley Kuhlmann served back-to-back aces, followed by a powerful kill by Emma Becker before Wilkins made her presence known in the middle with blocks on consecutive points, the second of which was a dual effort with Ashley Nelson to give Liberty Hill a commanding 15-9 lead.
The Lady Panthers would build on positive momentum as Wilkins added another kill, along with one from Ashleigh Dubbs.
However, from there, it continued to be a good Hair day for the visitors as she and Becker blocked a shot before Hair added her fourth kill of the opening set, followed by Dubbs hammering home a winner to close out the opening stanza.
According to Hair, the Lady Dawgs left openings in the middle of the net which allowed her to capitalize.
“I had a lot of areas to swing at because their block on the threes wasn’t there,” said Hair. “So, it gave us a chance to work in the middle and expand our offense.”
Peterson said her squad’s sluggish start was due to them not being ready.
“We were kind of lethargic and had too many hitting errors,” she said. “Burnet was also making a lot of hustle plays and I think that caught us.”
The second set began as the first had with the home side putting up solid resistance, but it certainly didn’t last long, as the Lady Panthers edged ahead at 3-2 and never trailed the rest of the way in the second.
Hair picked up where she left off, pounding another pair of kills sandwiched around an ace by Emma Parsons before Nelson began to establish her net presence with four kills in the set including a hammer blow to close it out at 25-15.
After that, Liberty Hill put the Lady Dawgs to the sword once and for all.
Dubbs got a kill to open the third, followed by back-to-back swings from Wilkins finding the floor between Burnet defenders. Another pinpoint ace from Parsons preceded a block by Hair and Maddi Rowley, doubling the Lady Panthers’ lead to 6-3. Becker, Nelson and Escamilla would add kills down the stretch and victory was secured when Becker unleashed a thunderbolt to close out the match.
In addition to her offensive damage at the net, Hair also blocked four shots – even with Wilkins for the team lead.
Peterson attributed the duo’s dominance in the middle to the fact Burnet had done well shutting Escamilla and Nelson down on the outside, as the pair combined for only eight kills on the evening.
“We needed Ailie and Lilli tonight because Kindsee and Ashley weren’t haven’t their best night,” she said. “We had some players step up and we did a good job of finding a way to win.”
Along with Hair’s and Wilkins’ strong play in the middle, Becker had 17 assists and Parsons eight, while Kuhlmann led with four digs and added a a pair of aces. Rowley also had four digs and Parsons had two aces.
As for her coach’s milestone victory, Hair was glad to be a part of the festivities, she said.
“I’m really happy for Coach Peterson because she’s put in a lot of work,” said Hair.
The fact the win came at the expense of the rival Lady Dawgs, not to mention it marked the opening of district play was a bonus, she said.
“I’m really excited because I know this makes us better,” said Hair. “It felt really good to get a win – it gets us motivated, ready and helps us with our confidence.”
Peterson agreed with Hair’s assessment.
“Always good to get all three in a road win, the fact it was district and against Burnet,” she said. “But, we’re a group with high standards and I feel we didn’t play all that well. We expect more of ourselves so we’ll show up for work at practice on Monday because we have to understand we have to play better with the caliber of teams we’re going to see in the playoffs.”
Liberty Hill (28-13, 1-0) has now won 10 straight matches and will next host Lampasas on Oct. 1 at 6 p.m.

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