Lady Panthers suffer first-round exit

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By Scott Akanewich
Sports Editor

Part of moving up to Class 5A this season for the Lady Panthers of Liberty Hill was a challenging district schedule, which saw head coach Gretchen Peterson’s club tested throughout the campaign.

It also meant after a third-place finish in the district, there would be no easy opening-round playoff matchup against a small-town team like last year when they swept aside Bandera, who had a losing record both overall and in district play.

No, this season presented an entirely different challenge altogether with Liberty Hill looking across the net at Alamo Heights of San Antonio on Nov. 19 in Seguin and this time around it was the Lady Panthers who were victims of a first-round straight-sets sweep at the hands of the Lady Mules by a score of 3-0 (25-19, 25-20, 25-19).

Despite nine kills from Emma Becker and five by Kindsee Escamilla, the Purple-and-Gold were once again sent packing from the playoffs early on for the third consecutive season – although Peterson was certainly in no mood to measure the present against the past.

“We’re not going to compare this year to last season or any other,” she said. “We’re going to look at the big picture and not let our entire season be defined by one match.”

Maddi Rowley got the Lady Panthers on the board early, with a kill to even up the first set after Alamo Heights got out to a lead, which was soon followed by another from Kaileigh Truslow, but it was the Mules who established superior net presence in the person of 6-foot-1 sophomore Hannah Whittingstall and 5-foot-10 junior Kylie Wickley, who began bombing away at the Liberty Hill defense early and often.

Becker served an ace nearing the midway point of the set to pull her side within a pair of points at 8-6, but Liberty Hill couldn’t quite close the gap on Alamo Heights, despite additional kills by Bailey Becker and Rowley as the Mules stubbornly held on to the lead.

Escamilla collected a kill to make the score 14-11, but that was the closest the Lady Panthers would get for the rest of the set despite another pair of kills and a block by Emma Becker, as the Mules would take the opening stanza, 25-19.

Liberty Hill won the opening point of the second set, but Alamo Heights continued its relentless assault, racing out to a 7-2 advantage before an Ailie Hair block quelled some of the momentum as the Lady Panthers fought ferociously to stay in the match.

Emma Becker and Rowley both hammered home winners, followed by a pair of Escamilla kills and another block by Hair, but the Mules carried on with nearly mistake-free play in maintaining the lead.

Finally, after steadily chipping away at the Alamo Heights advantage on the strength of a kill and an ace by Truslow, Liberty Hill caught the Mules and leveled the score at 18-18 on a Rowley kill after an Emma Becker ace – all part of a 10-4 Lady Panthers run which followed immediately after a time-out was called by Peterson in order to calm the troops, she said.

“I just told them to settle in and make plays,” said Peterson.
However, after the Lady Panthers had gone ahead, 19-18, on an Escamilla block, the Mules rebounded with a 7-1 run of their own to close out the set and take a 2-0 lead in the match.

The third set saw the score even at 3-3 early on, but soon Alamo Heights began to extend its lead courtesy of a 9-2 run, which made the score 12-5 before moving out to as much as an 18-9 advantage.

The Lady Panthers courageously fought on, as Emma Becker had six kills in the set, but after Hair blocked her fourth shot of the night nearing the death, Alamo Heights won the final two points of the match and in doing so, drove the final nails into the Lady Panthers’ coffin.

In addition to her nine kills, Emma Becker recorded a pair of aces, two blocks, 10 assists and 10 digs, while Emma Parsons picked up 13 assists and Haley Kuhlmann had 11 digs to lead Liberty Hill and
Truslow also had two aces on the match.

Alamo Heights was led by Wickley and Whittingstall, who had 12 and 11 kills, respectively, with Ruby O’Brien collecting 34 assists on the evening.

Despite the disappointment of another early playoff exit, Peterson is convinced her club is headed in the right direction looking to the future.

“Okay, so we were a team who finished third in our district and lost in the first round of the playoffs,” she said. “But, our team this year is 100 percent better than we were at this time last year. Not to take anything away from last season’s team, but we were in a tough district this year and our kids battled the whole way. Losing in the first round in (Class) 5A compared to 4A is like night and day, so to compare the two is irrelevant – they’re different mindsets. Our girls never made excuses, worked hard and rose to the challenge all season and we’ll celebrate that as we move forward.”

Still, all of the optimism couldn’t completely take the sting out of defeat.

“Losing always sucks,” said Peterson. “Especially for our seniors because they don’t get to come back and make those adjustments. But, even in this match, we made some great plays and had some great moments. Alamo Heights just played better.”

Liberty Hill finished the season with an overall record of 16-6 after posting a 10-4 mark in district play, good for a third-place finish.

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