By KEITH SPARKS
The Lady Panther softball team, which finished its district season with an undefeated record and is currently sitting atop the Conference 4A state rankings, would likely be in a much different position without its starting shortstop, senior Joely Williamson.
Williamson, who signed to play softball at Utah State last November, has struck fear into pitchers across the state of Texas. This season, Williamson has accrued 48 hits on a .505 batting average, driven in 33 RBIs, scored 40 runs, and has hit nine home runs. According to Williamson, it should come as no surprise to those who understand the work she’s put in.
“I definitely have put in the work that needed to be done to get where I am,” Williamson said of her offensive production. “The fact that I’ve produced so well, and that my name will be remembered, is great. It’s just a great thing, especially for how hard I’ve worked.”
The future Utah State Aggie has been starting for the Lady Panthers since she was a freshman. Although she didn’t quite predict being one of Liberty Hill’s best batters in school history, her confidence led her to believe she could compete at a high level immediately.
“I knew I could compete with these girls,” Williamson said of her mindset as a freshman, “but I didn’t think I would be hitting as well as some of the past players like Lindsey Mitchell or Sam Junkin. They’ve been such inspirations to me, and I just wanted to meet up to what they could do, so I put in the time and effort. I definitely had to work hard, too, over the summers with select ball, and seeing great pitchers all year long that are going to big D1s, so I’ve worked really hard to get where I am.”
As one of only two seniors on this year’s varsity team, the other being Sam Barnett at first base, Williamson has had to take on a lot of responsibility, both on the field and off. The fact that she’s started for varsity since she was a freshman, however, means this is nothing new for her.
“I feel the same as last year, because I was a team captain last year,” Williamson said of her responsibilities as a senior. “This season, it’s just kind of different because we are the top dogs, and we are pushing everyone to be what they can be.”
The furthest the Lady Panthers have gone in the playoffs during Williamson’s career was her sophomore season, when they were ousted by Needville in the Regional Finals. The following season, Liberty Hill faced Needville once again, and met the same fate in the Area Finals.
After winning the first game against Needville in a best-of-three series in 2016, the Lady Panthers found themselves with the lead in game two and a chance to advance. According to Williamson, the wheels simply fell off.
“The second day, we were up, then we just kind of lost the lead,” she said. “That gave them excitement for the third game. The third game, we only had one run, which was my home run. It was a real emotional time, because I know we should have gone farther.”
This year, Williamson has her sights set on something bigger.
“It’s incredibly important to me,” Williamson said of ending her senior season with a deep playoff run. “I’ve wanted to go to State ever since my freshman year. I mean, all softball players do. State is something that every girl dreams of, and only four teams make it to State. It’s something that everyone aspires to, and I’ve always dreamt of it. I’ve wanted to every year, but this year it’s especially important, because I know we deserve to be there.”
In order to make it to State, both Williamson and Barnett will need to step up to the plate, quite literally. As the team’s senior leaders and its strongest batters, both Division 1 commits will need to bring their A-game night-in and night-out.
“Sam (Barnett) and I have a big portion of our lineup,” Williamson said. “We’re really strong, we have real strong bats, so we’re looking to hit well for our team. If we can’t, just find any way to score some runs. Hopefully we’ll have a couple fielder’s choice to get people around on the bases and get people scoring on sac flies—anything we can—and home runs, of course.”
Williamson and the Panthers will play Smithville in their first best-of-three playoff series of 2017. This isn’t Williamson’s first rodeo, and she’ll be taking some lessons with her from previous playoff disappointments.
“Never take anyone lightly,” she said. “Never give up. You can’t really play the whole game by yourself. Last year, and the year before, I tried to put a lot on my shoulders, and it hit me harder, because I thought I could have done more. The reality, after I’ve looked back over the years, is that I did everything that I could. I’ve put it all on the field, and it just didn’t go our way.”
As she approaches her last few games as a Panther, Williamson said she hopes she leaves a legacy of being “a true leader” of the Liberty Hill softball team, first and foremost, in addition to simply being known as a winner.
“I want people to remember me by getting my team where it needs to be,” she said. “Taking control and being a loud, vocal person on the field, having a great record as a team and an individual by setting records, and just performing as best as I can.”
Considering her current batting numbers with the playoffs still to come, it’s safe to say her individual accolades will be remembered. As far as team success is concerned, the regular season is just the tip of the iceberg.
Game one of the postseason will take place at Liberty Hill High School on Thursday, April 27, at 6:30 p.m. as the Panthers take on the Smithville Tigers. Game two will take place at Smithville on Friday, April 28, at 6 p.m. If a third game is necessary, it will begin 30 minutes after game two at Smithville.