The Lady Panthers look to make title run

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By Scott Akanewich

Sports Editor

When the Lady Panthers walked off the court a year ago in the aftermath of a first-round playoff defeat to Fredericksburg, a seed was planted in the minds of those associated with the Purple-and-Gold.

Don’t let it happen again.

Senior Emily Huppee, who was a junior on last season’s club, certainly remembers that day quite vividly.

“After I finished crying, I started to think about how we could be better,” said Huppee, who will lead Liberty Hill into this year’s postseason, along with fellow seniors Ashley Nelson and Lauren LaDuque. “We knew we had to push ourselves.”

Nelson said the entire experience was surreal.

“It was like a dream,” she said. “But, it made us more motivated and focused for this year.”

Lady Panthers head coach Gretchen Peterson has been on the Liberty Hill sidelines for 16 seasons and last fall was only the second time one of her squads has suffered an opening-round exit, something which definitely stuck with her, she said.

“I felt like we let a lot of people around the program down,” said Peterson. “You had that sick-to-your-stomach, awful feeling because that’s not how we do things at Liberty Hill.”

Despite the fact last year’s team had eight seniors on the roster, there was still a lack of experience in the side, she said.

“We had seniors who hadn’t gotten a lot of playing time up to that point and were thrust into roles maybe they weren’t accustomed to,” said Peterson. “But, I thought they handled it pretty well.”

LaDuque spent last year on the junior varsity, but she knew as an incoming senior this season she would help carry the burden of that failure moving forward, she said.

“I think for me it was different because I didn’t experience it myself,” said LaDuque. “But, it still makes me not want to go through it.”

Now that the Lady Panthers are on the verge of returning to that same place where they were a year ago, the entire team is ready and determined to ensure there’s no disappointment this time around, said LaDuque.

“It’s definitely something we’re anticipating,” she said. “For us, it’s the culmination of the entire year’s work.”

Liberty Hill entered the postseason on a 19-match winning streak, with the last defeat being at the Smithson Valley tournament over two months ago, the final event of three road trips to play in tournaments against higher-level competition, which was designed to toughen her team up for the pressurized gauntlet they’re about to pass through, said Peterson.

“We got stronger from those challenges,” she said. “We saw what it takes to play at that level because you learn more from your losses than wins.”

Peterson also said the returning players from last season’s side who went through the disappointment are stronger now because of it.

“Players like Ashley (Nelson), Ailie (Hair), Lilli (Wilkins), Ashleigh Dubbs and Emma Parsons have all gotten even better this season because of what they went through last year,” she said. “I feel like now we have more mature players than we did last year and the potential to go really far in the playoffs because we’re also more gifted and talented.”

Now that the time for redemption is at hand, Nelson said she’s ready to go in taking care of unfinished business.

“I’m not really nervous – I’m more excited,” she said. “We’re ready for what’s to come. For us, anything short of a state title is failure.”

Huppee echoed her teammate’s sentiment.

“I think we’re going to be very disappointed if we don’t go far,” she said. “Because we have the potential to do so.”

LaDuque is certain she and the rest of the Lady Panthers are poised to pounce in the playoffs, she said.

“I fell like we’ve really come together as a team,” said LaDuque. “We all know each other, we know how to make each other better, but most of all, we want to make one another better. There’s a real cohesiveness on our team and we all believe in ourselves.”

All in all, last season’s abbreviated postseason run could actually be in retrospect a black cloud with the proverbial silver lining, said Peterson.

“Could be what happened to us last year was a blessing,” she said. “Because I think it’s made us tougher and stronger and has been a big motivating factor for our girls.”

Peterson said this time of the year after a long, grueling regular season is always like a breath of fresh air – for players and coaches alike.

“Playoffs definitely give you a sense of urgency and a lot of excitement,” she said. “It’s like a new life and a very fun time of the season.”

However, not all the memories will be made on the court and in fact, some of the most lasting will have nothing to do with scorelines, said Peterson.

“I think it’s important for our girls to make the most of every moment and find joy in the journey,” she said. “Memories will come from things like the road trips, team dinners and time they spend with one another. Nobody’s going to remember who played what or how, so they just need to embrace the situation.”

All that being said, the task at hand is still in the forefront, with how last season ended already a distant memory, said Peterson.

“We’ve moved forward and set our team up according to who we are now,” she said. “We know who we are, so now it’s time to take care of business.”

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