By KEITH SPARKS
In the second game of a best-of-three series against Madisonville on May 12, the Panthers suffered their first loss since March 10. During the first and third games, however, the Panthers did what needed to be done to advance.
Their first game, which was supposed to take place on May 11, was postponed due to lightning nearby and rescheduled for Friday at 5 p.m. immediately followed by game two.
The Panthers took game one in a low scoring affair that finished with a final score of 2-1. The Panthers scored two runs on only three hits by way of an RBI double from Garrett Wright, a single by Wyatt Cheney, and a single by Ryan Ray.
Wright finished one for three at the plate with an RBI, Cheney finished one for two, and Ray finished one for two with one run scored. Cheney also pitched a complete game, finishing with nine strikeouts while giving up only one run on four hits.
According to Head Coach Michael Kristan, the back-to-back may have led to some pitching fatigue for the Panthers in game two, which they lost by a final score of 5-2.
“We only play about 10 or 12 kids, so they may get a little worn out,” Kristan said. “(Wyatt) Cheney, (Chandler) Freeman, (Nathan) Flake, and (Turner) Gryseels, they all play the field, so I could see how when you’re throwing it across the infield and warming up, that kind of stuff, then ‘Alright, next game’s yours. You’re pitching.’ It could be a little tiring, especially when it’s so warm out.”
Freeman pitched a complete game, giving up five earned runs on eight hits in game two while striking out five batters. Connor Thompson went one for four at the plate with a triple and a run scored, Freeman went one for four at the plate with a run, Cheney went one for two at the plate, and Gryseels went one for three. Flake finished with the Panthers’ only RBI of the contest.
The Panthers bounced back for game three on May 13, scoring twice as many runs as they did in the first two games combined en route to an 8-0 victory.
“We just played baseball,” Kristan said. “Nathan (Flake) did a great job of keeping them off-balance. They couldn’t score. We kind of got back to our old stuff where we were running the bases and putting the ball in play. When you face a good team, they’re going to throw good pitchers and you’re only going to score a couple runs. Fortunately for us, they ran out of juice on the mound and we put the ball in the play.”
Thompson went two for four at the plate with a double, two RBIs, and a run scored, Wright went one for three at the plate with a double, an RBI, and two runs scored, and Cheney went one for three with an RBI and a run scored. Flake got the win on the mound in a complete game, finishing with five strikeouts and no earned runs on two hits.
Next on the Panthers’ schedule is the China Spring Cougars.
The only time the Panthers got a chance to face China Spring this season was during the West Tournament on March 4 in a game that lasted only one inning before being called early due to weather concerns. The final score was a 3-3 tie.
“I know they’re good,” Kristan said of China Spring. “They play in a great district. They got second place to Waco Robinson, who’s ranked third in the state. China will be scrappy. They’ve got a couple good pitchers. When you get into the third round of the playoffs, there’s not many secrets. They’re pretty good.”
Kristan mentioned the presence of Panther fans and booster club members as a possible advantage for Friday night’s game one matchup with China Spring at home, while also recognizing that both game two and three will pose a challenge on China Spring’s turf.
“It’s a Friday night at seven o’clock, so our kids are used to that routine,” Kristan said of Friday night’s home matchup. “Obviously, (China Spring’s) Coach Lopez, they’re used to traveling on Friday nights, so I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage time-wise, but I think it’ll be great with our fans and our booster club putting flags up. I think the excitement will be to our advantage, and they play on grass at their field and we play on turf. There’s definitely a little advantage, but if we don’t take care of business we turn around and play there and they have the advantage.”
Liberty Hill has a 26-4 record on the season and is ranked eighth in the state, according to Max Preps, while China Spring holds a 21-8-1 record and ranked 23rd in the state. According to Kristan, the Panthers’ chances of winning are solid in any best-of-three series.
“If we can play everybody two out of three, we’ve got a pretty good chance of winning,” he said.
This Friday, May 19, the Panthers will face China Spring in the third round of the playoffs. The first game will take place on Friday at 7 p.m. at Liberty Hill High School. Game two will take place at China Spring High School at 1 p.m. Saturday, and game three will follow 30 minutes after game one, if necessary.