By Paul Livengood
Prior to last Friday’s playoff matchup between Liberty Hill and Navasota, the coaches had the opportunity to vote on whether to play a one- or three-game series. Panthers’ Head Coach Michael Kristan wanted to play a three-game series, but Navasota Head Coach Amaro Villarreal wanted a one-game series, as the underdog usually does. The two flipped a coin to see who would decide, and Villarreal prevailed.
“In a one-game series, you never know what can happen,” Liberty Hill’s Wyatt Cheney said.
Despite the coin flip not going their way, the Panthers came out on top anyway. Liberty Hill advanced to the second round with relative ease, defeating the Rattlers 8-2 at home.
Cheney, the Panthers’ starting pitcher, struggled to find the strike zone early, as he walked three batters and hit another, handing the Rattlers a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning.
Before long, the Panthers tied the game due to a Damian Natividad sacrifice fly to center field. Cheney tagged up from third base and scored the game-tying run in the bottom of the second inning.
“We got on them offensively, and that helped,” Kristan said about the team’s response after going down 1-0. “Cheney calmed down. He pitched 30 pitches in the first inning. It was Cheney finally throwing strikes and us scoring runs.”
Natividad capped off another Panthers’ scoring run in the bottom of the third with a two-RBI base hit to left field. Natividad finished with a game-high four RBIs while batting two for four at the plate.
“I stayed back and trusted my hands,” Natividad said of his approach to the plate with runners on base.
While the Panther offense caught fire as the game progressed, so did Cheney on the pitcher’s mound. After letting up four walks in the first inning alone, the Panthers’ ace bounced back with 10 strikeouts in six innings of work. Cheney walked only one batter for the rest of the game.
“(Cheney) is a competitor,” Kristan said. “He struggled last week doing the same thing and then this time he finally got back on track earlier so that helped.”
The Panthers finished off the Rattlers by scoring three more runs in the bottom of the fourth inning. The 8-2 win clinches Liberty Hill’s first bi-district championship as a 4A program.
The Madisonville Mustangs are now in the Panthers’ crosshairs. Madisonville and Liberty Hill will compete in a three-game series at Cameron Yoe High School. Game one is scheduled for Thursday, May 11, at 7 p.m., followed by a possible double-header on Friday, May 12, if a third game is necessary. Game two starts at 5 p.m. with a conditional game three scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.
The Mustangs enter the series with a 22-7 overall record 7-2 district record. Both the Panthers and Mustangs bring high-octane offenses to the diamond. Madisonville averages 8.1 runs per game, and Liberty Hill averages 7.6.
Liberty Hill enters the series with a longer win streak of 15 straight games compared to the Mustangs’ six. The Panthers have not lost since early March against a tough 6A Harker Heights team—a game in which Liberty Hill led until the top of the seventh.
The district-champion Panthers are riding their hot streak with confidence.
“(Madisonville) has a really good pitcher, but I think if we work counts, get him to throw a lot of strikes, then we can get him out of the game early and another pitcher in, and we can beat them,” Cheney said.