Panthers celebrate walk-off in final non-district game

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Freshman Wyatt Cheney came up big on the mound in a 3-2 win over St. Andrews Tuesday. In Cheney’s lone inning on the hill, he worked out of a jam to preserve a 2-1 Panther lead. Cheney was one of five Liberty Hill pitchers on the evening, and that group combined to allow just five hits and three runs. (Alex Rubio Photo)

Freshman Wyatt Cheney came up big on the mound in a 3-2 win over St. Andrews Tuesday. In Cheney’s lone inning on the hill, he worked out of a jam to preserve a 2-1 Panther lead. Cheney was one of five Liberty Hill pitchers on the evening, and that group combined to allow just five hits and three runs. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By MIKE SCHOEFFEL

Nobody on the Liberty Hill roster has been hotter than Connor Thompson, and the streaking junior delivered again on Tuesday night against St. Andrews.

With the score tied at two in the bottom of the seventh, and the winning run — in the form of pinch-runner Damian Natividad — on third base, Thompson bounced a grounder up and over the shortstop’s glove, scoring Natividad and giving the Panthers’ their first walk-off win of the season.

“Getting a walk-off win is huge,” said Liberty Hill head coach Mike Kristan. “I’ve said from day one, after we took a butt whipping against Boerne, that our kids don’t pout or worry or stress. They say ‘Hey, we can score.’ It’s an every inning, every game kind of thing.”

“I don’t know how much carry over [the walkoff] will have,” he added. “But as a coach, as least you can turn to the kids and say ‘Hey, we’ve done this before.’”

The walk-off wasn’t Thompson’s only contribution to the victory. With the score knotted at one in the bottom of the fifth, he beat out what would have been an inning-ending double play, allowing Cooper Phelan to score the go-ahead run from third.

Kristan has regularly stressed the importance of conscious baserunning, and Thompson’s hustle play was just another example of its advantages.

Two other baserunning decisions paid dividends for the Panthers against St. Andrews. Thompson scored the game’s first run on a past ball in the bottom of the third. Then, in the bottom of the seventh, Natividad advanced to third on a ball in the dirt. Moments later, he trotted home on Thompson’s walk-off.

“Anytime you can take extra bases, it puts pressure on the other team,” said Kristan. “We’ve done that forever. We feel like that’s a game we can control. Sometimes you face a strong pitcher, you’re not going to get a lot of hits. But you can always take extra bases and those kind of things.

“Tonight, those little things made a big difference.”

It was the varsity team’s final non-district game, and the Panthers treated it as a sort of tune-up before the district opener against Taylor on March 22. Kristan ran through six different pitchers, not out of necessity, but to give a wide swath of players time on the mound.

Slater Foust, Jared Hudleston, Luke Alexander, Nathan Flake, Wyatt Cheney, and Chandler Freeman combined to throw a five-hitter. That six-some also struck out seven and didn’t allow a walk.

“We have 20 kids on the roster and a lot of them can contribute,” said Kristan. “Unfortunately, when district starts, that number of kids playing narrows, but it’s encouraging to know that we roll anybody in there, that we can be confident no matter who’s in the game.”

The pitching staff worked through a number of jams on the evening.

In the top of the fourth, Alexander notched an inning-ending strikeout with the tying run on second. In the sixth, with runners on second and third and one out, Cheney, a freshman, struck out a batter and induced a groundout to protect a 2-1 lead.

The Panthers had only three hits on the night — one a-piece by Thompson, Phelan, and Zach Smith — but did a masterful job of manufacturing runs with sacrifice bunts opportunistic baserunning.

“It’s a good win, the kids feel good about it,” said Kristan. “The real games start next week, and our district is going to be pretty good this year.”

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