Lady Panthers win fourth straight district crown
By Scott Akanewich
The Lady Panthers of Liberty Hill begin each soccer season with three objectives.
Win district. Make it to state. Win state.
Consider the first item on the list mission accomplished.
Liberty Hill defeated Salado by a final score of 4-0 at Panther Stadium on Friday night to secure its fourth consecutive district championship on goals by Emma Stephens, Kassidy Contreras and Mykenna Russo, along with an Eagles own goal.
Victory over Salado – their nearest rivals in the title race – clinches the championship with two regular-season games remaining, as the Lady Panthers increased their lead over the Eagles to two games and hold the tie-breaker after sweeping the season series.
Despite the fact it only took Stephens three minutes to test Salado goalkeeper Avery Wright, which was followed by a Kailey Fowler effort 10 minutes later, the opening 15 minutes of play were devoid of any serious scoring chances for either side.
However, that all changed in the 18th minute when Stephens lined up a free kick just outside the area and sent a long, arching shot from 25 yards out which beat the outstretched fingertips of Wright, as she backpedaled toward the net and leaped in an attempt to get a touch on the ball – but to no avail and the Lady Panthers took a 1-0 lead on the sophomore’s team-leading 37th of the season once the ball settled into the back of the net.
Contreras tried her luck from distance moments later in the 21st minute from even farther out – 35 yards – and beat the keeper only to be denied by the crossbar.
Madi Fuller then had a go in the 23rd minute which produced a Wright save, but it was only stemming the tide as the home side continued to pressure the visitors in relentless fashion.
Finally, in the 24th minute, Alyssa Lee took a corner which curled into the area only to be sent inadvertently into the net by a Salado defender during an attempted clearance for an own-goal and a 2-0 lead.
Only a minute later in the 25th, Lee sent another corner goalward, which was slotted home by Contreras for her third of the campaign after Wright failed to punch the ball clear on the initial attempt and it was 3-0, which was where the game stood at halftime.
It seemed as if each Liberty Hill shot from outside the Salado box kept getting father and farther away from goal and in the 59th minute, Russo mimicked Stephens’ earlier effort, only from 35 yards out for her 19th of the season to increase the advantage to a comfortable 4-0, which was the final margin.
According to Liberty Hill head coach Darren Bauer, the slow start to the contest was attributed to his club’s willingness and ability to weather Salado’s early storm and then capitalize when chances came their way.
“We knew they were going to come out and high-press us all over the field and try to get an early goal to shock us, then just sit back,” said Bauer. “But, we did a good job of sucking up the pressure.”
Bauer credited the Eagles’ defense, but also acknowledged the fact the margin of victory could’ve been greater.
“Salado’s defense is very organized,” he said. “But, I don’t worry about whether or not the score should’ve been more or less – our game plan isn’t to score 20, it’s to kill the game off early.”
Liberty Hill’s bench boss was also pleased Contreras was able to once again contribute on the scoresheet in a big moment.
“Kassidy scored an important goal for us earlier in the season,” said Bauer, of Contreras’ strike in a 1-0 victory over Smithson Valley at the Grizzly Classic in Leander on Jan. 11. “She’s been working really hard.”
With the district title in hand, it’s on to the next stage in the Lady Panthers’ quest for state glory, but with two district games left before the playoffs begin, Bauer said he’s not worried about his team taking its foot off the accelerator.
“Not with this group of girls,” he said. “They all know exactly what they need to do.”
Liberty Hill (17-1-3, 10-0) will next travel to Burnet on Feb. 10 before returning home to close out the regular season against Lampasas on Feb. 17.