By KEITH SPARKS
One of the most successful seasons in Panther baseball history came to a close on Saturday, May 20, as the Panthers fell in two consecutive games to the China Spring Cougars after winning game one handily.
On May 19, the Panthers looked unstoppable, scoring nine runs in the first inning en route to a 13-3 victory to take control of the series at home.
The Panthers saw big offensive games from Chandler Freeman, Wyatt Cheney, Garrett Wright, and Damian Natividad. Freeman finished with two hits, a run scored, and two RBIs, Cheney finished with two hits and three runs scored, Wright finished with a hit, two runs scored, and two RBIs, and Natividad finished with two hits, two runs scored, and one RBI.
Cheney got the win on the mound for the Panthers in game one, pitching all six innings and finishing with seven strikeouts while giving up only three hits.
Game two was a different story, as the Panthers had to travel to China Spring to face the Cougars on their turf on May 20.
The Panthers fell behind quickly, giving up five runs in the second inning while struggling to get on the board themselves. The Panthers scored one run each in the third and fourth innings to make it a 5-2 ballgame, then two more in the sixth to make it 5-4, but China Spring was able to score two runs in the bottom of the sixth to take a 7-4 lead before holding the Panthers scoreless in the seventh.
Connor Thompson finished game two with two hits and two RBIs, Freeman finished with two hits, Wright finished with an RBI, and Turner Gryseels, Natividad, Kory Schmidt, and Ryan Ray each finished with one hit.
Freeman pitched for the Panthers in game two, finishing with three strikeouts while giving up seven hits and seven earned runs.
“China really came to play,” Wright said after Saturday’s losses. “It was at their own place, and they didn’t want another butt whooping like they had gotten the night before. Their pitching seemed like they were trying to get us out instead of just trying to throw strikes. Friday night, it seemed like they were just trying to get the ball across the plate. We struggled putting runs together. Left a lot of guys on base, and we just couldn’t produce.”
The Panthers never really had a chance in game three, as they were shutout 10-0 in a game that lasted only four and a half innings due to the 10-run mercy rule.
China Spring scored four runs in the first inning, three in the second, two in the third, and one in the fourth. The Panthers finished with only two hits in the game, one by Thompson and one by Ray.
“I can’t really explain it,” said Panthers’ Head Coach Michael Kristan of his team’s woes on Saturday. “If I could, I’d be a magician. Our kids knew, I heard them in the dugout saying, ‘Hey, they’re not going to lay down for us.’ I don’t really know, except that we just didn’t produce.”
Nathan Flake pitched the first three innings, striking out one batter and giving up nine runs, though only three were earned, on four hits. Gryseels pitched the final inning, giving up one earned run on one hit and striking out three batters.
Despite a disappointing Saturday, Wright was proud of his team for bouncing back to win an undefeated district title and make a deep playoff run after a subpar 2016 campaign.
“I’m just proud of how we came back from such an ugly season last year,” he said. “What Liberty Hill considers ugly, not even what other schools consider ugly. Just coming back from that season and being able to go 12-0 in district. That’s the first time Coach Kristan has ever had an undefeated district championship, so that was cool to get for him. A five-loss season, you know, there’s not much more that you can ask for.”
Kristan shared Wright’s sentiments on the season as a whole, explaining that he was proud of their accomplishments and the leadership from his seniors, in particular.
“I told them at the end that I appreciate the senior leadership,” he said. “We had a great year, just a real bad day. Sometimes those happen. But the senior leadership, coming to practice, playing hard, and playing for each other. That many kids that can put up with me for four years are pretty tough kids, I would think.”
The Panthers finished their season with a 26-5 overall record. They will graduate nine seniors this year, leaving just six returners on the roster for next season.