Panther softball prepares to hit the diamond

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Last season’s softball team celebrates after a run. Softball practice starts officially on Jan. 20, 2017 and their first home game is Feb. 3 against Pflugerville High School. (Alex Rubio Photo)

Last season’s softball team celebrates after a run. Softball practice starts officially on Jan. 20, 2017 and their first home game is Feb. 3 against Pflugerville High School. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By KEITH SPARKS

The new year is right around the corner, and with that comes softball season. The Panthers will have their first official practice of the season on Jan. 20, 2017, before playing their first game against Pflugerville on Feb. 3.

During the offseason, Head Coach Charice Hankins’ main focus was to find out who on the team is capable of taking a leadership role, in addition to making sure her girls were in game shape before the season starts.

“This is a good time for me to see who’s leading and who’s following,” Hankins said. “We’re just trying to build and create. My job is to say, ‘Hey, take this opportunity to show us who you are.’ In the fall, we were just trying to figure out who those leaders are going to be, and now we start trying to entice everyone to rise to the occasion, and also trying just to create some confidence.”

After finishing as co-champions of the district last year with Burnet, Hankins expects the district to be just as competitive this year, listing Burnet, Lampasas, Salado, Llano and Taylor as their biggest threats to a district title.

Though they will be adding some girls from the basketball team once their season is over, Liberty Hill’s current roster includes two seniors in Joely Williamson and Samantha Barnett, three juniors in Jessika Truax, Kandyn Faurie and Makinley Browder, and five sophomores in Kinsey Kuhlmann, Amber Wiggins, Logan Ohler, Abby Covington and Carissa Garza.

Last year, the Panthers graduated four starting seniors, leaving them with only two seniors on the team for 2017 at this point. Although their youth may pose some challenges down the line, Coach Hankins explained that the younger players on the team have enough talent and experience to make up for the lack of senior leadership.

“In our offseason, we spent a lot of time together,” Hankins said. “Our leaders lead, and it was all about respecting the game, respecting the process, respecting what we have to do to get the job done. We have good kids. We have Joely (Williamson), my senior, she’s committed to Utah State. Sam (Barnett) is committed to UCONN. We have a sophomore, Kinsey Kuhlmann, she’s verbally committed to Ole Miss. Jessica Truax, our junior, is going to be playing somewhere. She just doesn’t know where, yet. We have young players, but they’re experienced and they’re excited.”

After falling to Needville in the second round of the playoffs last year for the second straight season, the focus during the offseason was to improve upon their bullpen depth. Coach Hankins explained that their offense is stronger than it’s ever been, and that depth in the bullpen is what can push them past the second round.

“Our focus coming off of last season was that we need to get deeper with our pitching,” Hankins said. “The last two years, we’ve been the most explosive offensive teams I’ve ever had. We hit 36 home runs in 2015, and we hit 43 home runs in 2016. Our offense was just crazy good, and we focused a lot on that. We lost in the regional finals to Needville in 2015, and last year we met them in the second round, and offensively we matched up. In 2016, we had like four home runs, scored like 13 runs, and we still lost the series. We came out of last year thinking that we just need to get more depth in our pitching.”

Coach Hankins is hopeful that the addition of two sophomore pitchers to her roster — Amber Wiggins and Abby Covington — will add some desperately needed depth to their relatively shallow bullpen.

“I think with a combination of those two, I think we have a good chance to be stronger,” Hankins said regarding the addition of her sophomore pitchers. “I think, mentally, both of these kids are tough, and we’re going to put them in situations where, hopefully, they can help us.”

Hankins doesn’t expect the Panthers’ bullpen to win games by themselves, by any means. Their mindset this year, as it was last year, is that if the bullpen can keep them in the game, their explosive offense will give them a chance to win night in and night out.

“You can have the best pitcher in the world, but if you can’t score runs, you’re not going to win anyway,” Hankins said. “We’ve always focused on our defense and our offense, and not letting one aspect of our game make or break it. We don’t put the pressure on our pitchers. We just tell our pitchers, ‘Look, if you can keep us in the game, then our offense and our defense will help.’”

Last year, that strategy worked out well, for the most part. The Panthers went 26-10, overall, beating La Vernia in two games in the first round of playoffs, and losing to Needville in three games for the second straight season, winning the first game of the series before losing the next two.

Their first game of 2017 will take place on Friday, Feb. 3, at home against Pflugerville High School. The varsity team will play at 6:30 p.m. after the junior varsity team plays at 5 p.m.

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