By Lance Catchings
The 2018 Liberty Hill baseball season will soon be underway. The Panthers are coming off of a 2017 campaign in which they went 27-5, overall, and 12-0 in district play en route to a District Championship. They advanced to the third round of the UIL State Playoffs before falling to China Spring in three games.
“We had a really good year last year,” Head Baseball Coach Mike Kristan said. “We went 12-0 in district, playing teams like Taylor and Salado that always go to the playoffs. We have our top two pitchers back in Wyatt Cheney and Chandler Freeman, which will help us a lot. Kory Schmidt was our catcher last season towards the last half of district and during the playoffs, and he is back, as well. We lost six senior starters from last season, so we have some spots to fill. I believe we have capable kids. They just have to go out and prove it.”
The expectation for the Panthers, as with most Liberty Hill athletics, is to repeat as district champions. Beyond that, the team has its sights set on the UIL State Tournament in June.
“We always want to win district,” Kristan said. “We believe if you win district, it gives you a good chance to play longer in the playoffs. Our big thing is we think we can play in the State Tournament. We are going to play some good teams early in the year. We will play number-one-ranked Waco Robinson. We play Boerne, who is ranked eighth, with nine returning seniors. We play Salado and Taylor in our district. We are excited about the opportunity to play in June for a State Championship.”
Although the Panthers only return three starters, they do have seven lettermen, total, that have seen significant playing time returning to the lineup.
“We have three returning starters and four more returning letterman,” he said. “We have seven guys returning with varsity experience, so we have a core there.”
Offensively, Kristan wants his players to be aggressive this season, and defensively, his goal is for them to know exactly what needs to happen in any given situation.
“In years past, we have always liked to run the bases when we get on base,” he said. “We don’t bunt often, but we know it’s a weapon. On defense, we rely on our pitchers to throw strikes, and then we field the ball. Overall, we want to be aggressive on offense and know where to go with the ball on defense. On the bases we will be aggressive until we get thrown out. If Coach Kristan gets you thrown out, then I’ll take the blame for it.”
The Panthers return their top two pitchers, which should be a huge plus for Liberty Hill on the defensive side of the ball.
“Cheney and Chandler both pitched as freshmen, and they were one and two as sophomores,” Kristan said. “We are looking for a big year from both of them again. They will make me look like a smart coach, for sure.”
The Panthers open the season with scrimmages against Manor, Leander Rouse and Marble Falls before taking on first-place-ranked Boerne in the season opener on Feb. 20. After the Boerne game, the Panthers will compete in the Marble Falls, West and Travis County tournaments.
“Pre-district, we are just trying to play as many games as we can, so we can see who can pitch and who can compete,” Kristan said. “The good thing for us is we have three or four guys that can start a game, and we have another three or four catchers. I don’t like wearing kids out early. I like to give them the opportunity to show what they can do to help their teammates, and by district, we are close to knowing what we have. Early on, we just want to see them compete and see who can help us in the future. We want to win every game, but we also want to see who can play. We might not win every game, but we are going to try.”
This year, Kristan will change up a few of his normal practice routines for the overall betterment of the team. He is excited about the coaching staff and players he has in place, and is looking forward to the start of the season.
“One big thing I told the kids is our practices will change,” he said. “Things have been great for the last 15 years, but if we want to go to the next level, I will have to change up a few things. I will take away things and add things. If I expect them to get better, then I have to change my old habits, as well.
“I have two great assistant coaches. Hirum Drum has been with me, and this will be his third year with the hitters. Jordan Johns actually played for me. He graduated in 2008 and was on two State Championship football teams. He is a great coach, and I am excited to have him with me. We are here to have fun and play hard,” Kristan said.