Liberty Hill girls, boys score top-five team finishes

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By Scott Akanewich
Sports Editor
Zaila Smith and Kevin Berber shared a stage in the awards tent on Saturday at the Class 4A state cross country championships at Old Settlers Park in Round Rock, as freshman Smith finished fourth in the girls’ varsity race and senior Berber crossed the line in ninth in the boys’ event.
The pair represented the highest respective individual finishes for the Panthers, but it was team success which carried the day, as the girls finished fifth, while the boys were fourth.
Smith finished with a time of 11:38.26, just missing out on a top-three result by .53 seconds, when she was nipped at the finish line by Canyon’s Abree Winfrey, while Jaci McGregor of Salado won the race in 11:24.05.
Despite falling just short of third, Smith was still duly pleased with her effort.
“For me, it was amazing,” she said. “But, it was very nerve-wracking.”
The Panthers’ freshman had finished second at the McNeil Invitational earlier this season on the same course, but this time around the competition was a bit more fierce, she said.
“Much more difficult,” said Smith. “At the beginning of the race, I was trapped and had to get out, so I ran hard until I got to the first hill.”
Junior Ayanna Donwerth was next in the Liberty Hill running order with a 22nd place showing in a time of 12:11.21, while rounding out the points for the Panthers were Tyler Goode (66th, 12:49.11), Hannah Johnson (82nd, 12:56.99) and Natalie Roth (88th, 13:00.82).
Also finishing were senior Lindsee Miller (95th, 13:03.34) and Emma Hiebner (114th, 13:27.00).
Liberty Hill’s team total of 169 points was enough to finish fifth behind winner Canyon (109).
According to Panthers head coach Kim Holt, the girls did well in such a pressure-packed environment.
“Our girls did a great job,” said Holt. “Especially, seeing how they didn’t even make it to state last year.”
On the boys’ side, it was Berber who blazed a trail to a new school record in a time of 15:40.24, good for ninth and also a new personal best and a performance which even left himself surprised, he said.
“My plan was to try to get under 16:15,” said Berber. “I didn’t know I was going to pass so many people.”
Holt said it all might have been the shoes.
“Kevin didn’t run so good at regionals,” she said. “But, he wore his new red shoes today, which he looks at like they’re gold.”
Berber’s top-10 effort provided the platform for a fourth-place team finish, which was a marked improvement over last year’s state showing, said Holt.
“They finished seventh last season and this year they made it all the way up to fourth,” she said. “Their goal was to finish on the podium and they just missed.”
Completing the scoring for the Panthers were Gregory Miller (47th, 16:34.79), Cade Johnson (60th, 16:39.30), Isaiah De La Garza (70th, 16:46.84) and Jacob Russell (75th, 16:49.89).
Also finishing were senior Gabe Diaz (76th, 16:50.40) and Brandon Colicher (106th, 17:19.43).
Holt said the results provided a fitting close to the campaign and should also spark her team to continue its climb toward a state title.
“I think all our kids did awesome,” she said. “We couldn’t ask for a better finish to the season and I think this will give them more motivation for the future.”
Berber derived a great deal of confidence from his performance, he said.
“I feel now like I’m a big dog who can compete with these guys,” said Berber. “It feels amazing to do this after working so hard all season.”

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