Playoffs await Panthers, but first a night to remember

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Callen Mikulencak is the only senior on the Runnin’ Panthers team this season. He was honored by his team on Senior Night Tuesday, and joined at center court by his parents. (Kathy Canady Photo)

Callen Mikulencak is the only senior on the Runnin’ Panthers team this season. He was honored by his team on Senior Night Tuesday, and joined at center court by his parents. (Kathy Canady Photo)

By BOB VARMETTE

It was bound to be a night filled with emotions for the Liberty Hill Runnin’ Panthers.

It was their final home game of the season and a chance at perfection. And it was the final home game of a career for their lone senior, and captain, Callen Mikulencak.

The Panthers defeated the Taylor Ducks 78-48 Tuesday night at Liberty Hill High School in District 25-4A boys basketball. After the game, Mikulencak, for the last time, met with family and friends and fans in the foyer outside of the main gym.

The playoffs await for the Panthers and their captain. But this night was about celebration and recollections.

“I’m just enjoying it while I can because we all know that not everything lasts,” Mikulencak said. “I’m just taking it one step at a time and enjoying every moment of it … my team, my coaches, all the fans and supporters, just people that were there and really guided not just me, but this team. It’s come a long way and we couldn’t have done it without every single one of them.”

Mikulencak capped a memorable night of an unforgettable season with an important performance on the court. The Panthers’ captain finished with a game-high 22 points, including 15 in the first half that kept the Panthers ahead of a Ducks’ squad that proved – at least for the first two quarters – the District 25-4A title was not going to be awarded by default.

After the game, during the festivities off the court, Liberty Hill coach Barry Boren presented Mikulencak a plaque with a printed copy of the Walt Whitman elegy “O Captain! My Captain!”

“I thought that was so appropriate,” Boren said. “I talked about him being such an inspiration to all of us. We all had our names on it, with his picture. I think that’s something that he’ll savor for the rest of his life.”

Savor he will also an undefeated regular season – the first time a Boren-coached team has finished its regular season unbeaten. Savor he will also an undefeated District 25-4A championship.

The 2014-2015 edition of the Runnin’ Panthers have run with fervor, outscoring opponents by an average of 30 points per game. There have been few true tests, especially on the district schedule, where Liberty Hill’s closest wins were a 21-point victory over Lampasas Feb. 6 and a 23-point win over Taylor Jan. 30.

In the second game of the season, back on Nov. 24 at Leander in non-district play, Liberty Hill got its sternest challenge. The Panthers were forced to rally late to eke out a 54-51 win.

There were a lot of blowouts, too. And there were games that were competitive, at least for a while, before the Panthers pulled away, much as they did Tuesday night against the Ducks, who challenged for two quarters before the Panthers set their ship back on course in the third quarter – aided by eight points from sophomore post Zach Lord – and sailed away from the foundering Ducks in the final eight minutes.

“We’re not satisfied yet,” said Lord, who finished with 16 points along with teammate Trey Jenkins. “We’ll be satisfied when we get where we want to go. (But) it’s been a wonderful run.”

There will be a bi-district game, against an opponent to be determined, at a date, time and site to be determined on either Monday or Tuesday. This postseason journey to an undiscovered country is what the Panthers have pointed to all throughout their regular season run to 31.

Through all the games, all the wins – through the adoration from their fans, through the challenges from their opponents – and through the attention from the media, the Panthers have always said there was something else they chased. Not just perfection, they said, but a Class 4A championship – the first in the history of the program.

But Tuesday night, Boren said they were going to celebrate what they’ve accomplished.

Even if it’s just for a little while.

“We’ll probably enjoy it for about a day, and then we’ll start getting ready for what’s up next,” Boren said. “It matters, it all matters. But if I think about it too much, then there’ll be pressure. I don’t want to feel that. I just want to enjoy the moment and enjoy the time with them.”

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