Local travel team prepares future Panthers
By Scott Akanewich
Rusty Richards certainly knows what it takes to get to the highest levels of baseball.
After standing on the mound as both a member of the Texas Longhorns and Atlanta Braves during his playing career on the diamond, the now-52-year old Houston native is passing along all the knowledge he has gained over the years to the youth of Liberty Hill as coach of the local 13-and-under club – also known as the Panthers.
According to Richards, keeping the roster composed of strictly Liberty Hill players is one of the most important aspects of how the team functions – as all the players live in the Liberty Hill ISD area, which means they’re on the path to someday being Panthers at the high-school level.
“My goal for this team is to prepare them the best we can to play high-school baseball,” said Richards, who played on Class 5A state champions Sharptown during his prep days and later went on to be head coach at Fort Bend Christian, along with stints at the college level as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Arkansas State University and head coach at Schreiner University in Kerrville. “Liberty Hill baseball is in a good place. Families are moving here because of the school district and that’s bringing in more good athletes.”
But, only recruiting local players also has its drawbacks, he said.
“We’re playing against teams that recruit all over central Texas and we only have kids from Liberty Hill that are all zoned to LHHS,” said Richards. “We know that creates a disadvantage for us, but we want the kids to be challenged and play good competition.”
As the pipeline continues to produce more and more talent, Liberty Hill head baseball coach Steve Hutcherson is the primary beneficiary – something he acknowledges is critical in keeping his program competitive, he said.
“In a word, it’s crucial,” said Hutcherson. “Without a strong youth program and especially a program that keeps them playing leading in to high school, it would be very difficult for us to know what we have coming up when they get to their freshman year.”
Unlike counterparts such as football, basketball and volleyball, baseball is not played at the junior-high level in Liberty Hill, which makes local youth teams even more significant in the impact they have at the prep level in getting players ready for what will be expected of them when they step on a high-school field, said Hutcherson.
“We want them to – if nothing else – know our style of play,” he said. “How we like to run bases, how we like to use the bunt and what we try to place a high level of importance on as a program – playing harder than our opponents.”
The Panthers began their season with a pair of tournaments in late February and early March in Georgetown and were 3-4 when the coronavirus pandemic temporary shut them down until they were able to resume in June and currently have a 5-7-1 record with one tournament remaining in the campaign.
However, much was lost during the shutdown that simply can’t be made up, said Richards.
“This is a crazy time and we’ve had to make adjustments in our schedule to make sure everyone feels comfortable,” he said. “We started practice again in May and complied with social distancing. Putting kids in small groups instead of one big group. We’ve been practicing as a team now for awhile and have played in two tournaments with one more to go, but we’ll probably miss a total of five to six tournaments because of the pandemic, which is a ton of baseball and breaks my heart these kids missed out on some development time.”
As a result, all the little things within the game that will eventually be second-nature to young players will perhaps take that much longer now to come to fruition, said Richards.
“Baseball is a game where you need tons of repetitions. Missing out on so many reps this spring does concern me for our game,” he said. “Also, as you enter the teenage years, the learning curve does become steep in how to adapt to the game. Going from a 50-foot to a 60 feet-6 inches mound is a big difference, as is playing on bigger fields. “Base running, outfield play, cut-offs and relays become so much more important as you grow up – teaching them there is always somewhere to be — respecting the game and playing it right. Sometimes I feel we’ve lost that in how the game is played today. But, you’re talking to an old man that loves the tradition of the game.”
The players on the team are seventh and eight-graders who are just on the cusp of playing in high school, which makes their current level perhaps the most critical of the youth baseball ladder, when very particular questions are asked of the athletes as they stand on the verge of the fiercest competition they will have seen, said Richards.
“The kids on this team are great kids that love the game and want to get better. At this age, that’s all you can ask for,” he said. “Are you hungry to get better? Are you willing to put in the work? These kids are willing to put in the work and it’ll be fun to watch them as they grow up.”
Featured in the Panthers’ lineup is a quartet of .400 hitters in Garrett Lindgren (.455), Justin Carpenter (.440), Chase Breckel (.407) and Andrew Basey (.400) and all four contribute mightily to the team, said Richards.
“Chase plays catcher and pitches for us – he’s a great kid who absolutely loves the game and makes our team go with how important he is, while Andrew is a great hitter and also one of our better pitchers, who will make a very good high-school player,” he said. “Garrett is a great hitter that might lead us in batting — always puts the barrel on the ball and has played catcher and first base for us, but Justin might be our best hitter right now and has also developed very nicely at first base.”
Breckel leads the club on the mound with a 1.23 earned-run average and 16 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings, with Preston Lowery next at 3.23 with six strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings.
“Preston’s a great middle infielder, who pitches as well, with a good arm and has developed nicely,” said Richards. “He will continue to get better.”
In addition is a group of players who Richards believes will excel at the high-school level in a number of athletic endeavors, including Jaxson Scott, JD Richards, Braden Radziwon and Cade Beesley, while anchoring the middle of the park for the Panthers is Hayden McBeath.
“Hayden has great hands and plays a very good middle infield – he’s played shortstop and second base,” he said. “Also, he helps us pitching and will only get better as he continues to grow.”
Hutcherson said once players reach him, there’s a stark contrast to the age range of the competition, which can pose problems for even a polished young player who is now up against others who are vastly more experienced.
“Typically, for many of them, it’s the first time in their lives they might play a game where the players on the other team could be two or three years older than them,” he said. “Sometimes a freshman or sophomore on the varsity may face an 18-year old senior that is basically a grown man for the first time in their lives and it can be an eye-opener.”
So, does Hutcherson and his coaching staff scout young, local players in the hopes of uncovering fresh talent?
Yes and no, he said.
“I wouldn’t call in scouting in the formal sense, but rather just going out and watching kids play in the summer. Just to get a chance to see them in their element and what kind of teammate they are, as well as how they respond when things are going good, as well as when things are going bad,” said Hutcherson. “I think summer ball is very important to serve as the development piece itself, but sometimes I think it turns into the opportunity piece of being noticed for guys that want to play at the next level. But, I’ve never had a really good player that played on a really good team that went unnoticed if our high school had some success.”
Due to the fact summer travel ball isn’t UIL-sanctioned, the players must pay to play, but Richards doesn’t see that as a stumbling block.
“We’re blessed to be able to keep the cost down and blessed the parents don’t mind paying money for their sons to get quality baseball,” he said. “Parents pay for tournament fees, but the coaches are strictly volunteers, which keeps the cost minimal. I feel the kids are getting quality coaching and at the same time, we’re building our Panther pride in the rich tradition of this great community.”
With that being said, producing quality players for Hutcherson’s squad is simply the end product of what Richards is currently doing, he said.
“Coach Hutcherson is doing an incredible job at the high-school level – these kids are excited to go play for him one day,” said Richards. “My goal again for this team is to prepare them the best we can to play high-school baseball.”