Panthers stay undefeated, aim for District title Friday
By Paul Livengood
LLANO—The Liberty Hill Panthers have dominated the district schedule all season long.
That didn’t change on Tuesday.
The Panthers handled the Llano Yellowjackets with ease, winning by a final score of 9-0. With the win, Liberty Hill set up a potential district championship clinching opportunity versus Lampasas at home this Friday.
“We are going to play Friday like that’s our ‘securing district’ game, technically I guess it depends on what Lampasas did tonight,” Head Coach Michael Kristan said. “Obviously, Taylor and Salado have three losses, so I guess they can’t tie us even with three losses. We got to go beat Lampasas on Friday.”
The Yellowjackets came into the matchup with a 6-12 overall record and winless district slate.
Llano’s only collegiate-bound player thus far, Derek Baker, pitched five innings for the Yellowjackets and struck out six Panthers.
“(Baker) pitched a great game,” Kristan said. “If (Llano) played a little bit better defense, we’d probably be in a little more of a dog fight. (Baker) did a good job on the mound. We’ve faced good pitching in this district, so that’s a plus.”
Llano’s misplays in the field gave Liberty Hill the advantage. Back-to-back drops in the outfield put two runners on base when Kory Schmidt blasted a base hit to center field, which drove Turner Gryseels home from first base. Ryan Ray grounded into a fielder’s choice and drove Damian Natividad home from third base. Liberty Hill exited the second inning with a 2-0 lead and the run support piled on in the following innings.
The Panthers scored runs in every inning but the first—two in the second, one in the third, fourth, and fifth, and finally two in both the sixth and seventh innings.
Gryseels bounced back at the plate after slumping in the previous three games. The senior hit three for four at the plate, including two base hits, a triple down the right field line, and two RBIs.
“I felt a lot more confident,” Gryseels said of his batting performance. “I’ve had a little slump lately. I’ve been ‘O-fer’ the past three games. It just felt really good to get back on the board.”
On the mound, Nathan Flake recorded his sixth starting win for the Panthers this season. Flake is a perfect 6-0 on the season with a .452 ERA. The senior pitcher has allowed two earned runs all season. Flake is quick to credit his teammates for his success on the mound.
“It’s phenomenal to have such a great season,” Flake said. “I have a great defense behind me to back me up. I put a lot of trust in (the defense). My job is to go up there and let the other guys make outs.”
Through five innings, Flake told six Llano batters to take a seat before he ultimately exited himself, as he was relieved by Jacob McCaleb for the final two innings.
But it was the Panthers’ defense that stole the show. The infielders for Liberty Hill made several web-gem caliber plays on Tuesday. Natividad created a double play after making a leaping catch and throwing out a base runner at first base immediately after.
“It gives me 100 percent confidence in what my guys do,” Flake said of Natividad’s double play.
On Friday, the Panthers defeated Salado 4-3, which completed the sweep of the Eagles. The Panthers needed late-game heroics to pull off the victory, however.
Salado grabbed an early 3-0 lead in the top of the third inning. Gryseels allowed a single with two runners in scoring position, which gave the Eagles a 2-0 lead. Shortly after, Gryseels walked an Eagles batter with the bases loaded to give up the third run, but struck out the following batter to avoid the jam.
Liberty Hill responded in the bottom half of that same inning by scoring off a Freeman sacrifice fly.
Cheney relieved Gryseels on the mound in the fifth inning and pitched the rest of the game. Cheney recorded six strikeouts in those three innings.
The Panthers capitalized on the Eagles’ errors in the bottom of the sixth. Cheney, Ray, and Flake all scored runs with heads-up base running off of Salado’s errors. Liberty Hill regained the lead, 4-3, and Cheney finished off the ball game by striking out two of the final three batters. Cheney was awarded with the save.
Liberty Hill improves to 19-2 on the season, overall, and remains undefeated in district with a 9-0 record.
The Panthers have two more home games left before finishing off the season on the road in Burnet against the Bulldogs.
The next game is the biggest of the three, with playoff seeding implications at stake.
“It’ll be huge,” Kristan said about the Lampasas matchup on Friday. “It’ll be fun. You’ve got to play those kind of games to get into the playoffs. It’s fun to play those kind of games. Going into the playoffs, these games give you the ‘playoff feel’ that you’re looking for.”