Excitement surrounds Panthers as they head to State Softball Tournament

The Lady Panthers are going to State Tournament Thursday where they play Vernon at 12 Noon at McCombs Filed on the UT Campus. A community sendoff is planned for 8:45 a.m. Thursday at LHHS Softball Field. (Alex Rubio Photo)

The Lady Panthers are going to State Tournament Thursday where they play Vernon at 12 Noon at McCombs Field on the UT Campus. A community sendoff is planned for 8:45 a.m. Thursday at LHHS Softball Field. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By Mike Schoeffel

Logan Oehler was almost in tears as she celebrated a Regional Championship with her teammates last Saturday, May 27.

“I’m not really an emotional person,” she said, “but doing what we did really got to me.”

What the Liberty Hill softball team did certainly seemed worthy of waterworks.

By defeating Lorena in the Conference 4A, Region III championship, the Panthers became just the second team in the 20-year history of the Liberty Hill varsity softball program to qualify for the State Tournament. The Panthers are paired up against Vernon in a one-game state semifinal series that begins Thursday, June 1, at 12 Noon at the University of Texas.

The Panthers are one of four teams remaining in the hunt for a State title, including Vernon, Krum, and Beeville Jones. Liberty Hill needs just one win to become the first team in program history to reach the state finals.

So what is Oehler, the team’s starting catcher, feeling as she and her team stand on the precipice of history?

“Excitement definitely comes to mind,” she said. “I’m so ready to compete with such a great team and see what we can accomplish together.”

Oehler, of course, wasn’t the only Panther to get swept up in a sea of emotion after winning the regional title last week. Junior Jessika Truax said she experienced “pure joy.” Senior Sam Barnett claimed she was “overjoyed” at extending her high school career by at least another game. Senior Joely Williamson said “instant tears rolled out of my eyes” when Carissa Garza caught a fly ball to record the Regional title-clinching out.

Williamson said she cried her way through the post-game team meeting, the post-game interviews, and the round of hugs with family, who she said, “I accidentally made cry, as well.” The tears didn’t subside until she stepped on the bus to head back to Liberty Hill.

“I invest so much love, emotion, and time with my teammates — just as they all do,” she said. “It was just a great moment to realize that all our hard work paid off and that the confidence we had during the season was legitimate to have.”

The two-game sweep over Lorena was nip-tuck from beginning to end. Liberty Hill won game one, 3-2, and game two, 2-1. The closeness of the Regional Final series, coupled with the high stakes involved, spawned a uniquely emotional atmosphere. It was also a vast departure from the Regional Semifinal series in which the Panthers ransacked Little Cypress-Mauriceville to the tune of 23-6 over two games.

There were lessons to be learned from that pair of close contests. Oehler said it “prepared us mentally” and gave her team a challenge that could pay dividends at the State level. Truax said Lorena “tested our defense and hitting before these final games.” Barnett said competing in the high-intensity affairs “helps us to be able to play relaxed in any game-type situation.”

Williamson agreed with her teammates.

“The close games will definitely be beneficial to our team in the State Tournament,” she said, “because all the teams from here on out are good.”

The varsity softball team has been a part of the UIL since 1997, but the program didn’t start coming into its own until the 2010 season. That’s the year the girls first reached the Regional Finals. They’ve been back four times since then — in 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2017 — winning a Regional title in 2012 over Columbia before being bounced in the State Semifinal.

Head coach Charice Hankins has been at the helm of the program since its genesis. She thinks there are similarities — particularly on offense — between the groundbreaking 2012 team and this year’s team. As she put it, “both teams are aggressive at the plate and hit the ball well.”

There are some differences, though.

“[This year’s team] seems to have more experience in making game-time adjustments from inning-to-inning,” she said. “That makes an impact on picking each other up and coming through for each other.”

That sense of camaraderie and oneness has been echoed by many Liberty Hill players throughout the season. The feeling of unity was summed up well by Williamson, who said, “I can count on them to do anything I ask of them or, likewise, they can count on me.”

Hankins mentioned it, too, when she said the girls have “come together and know how important it is to focus on team-first.”

For Hankins, who has seen her fair share of teams, both the good and the not so good, it’s thoroughly rewarding when a group of girls bands together and fully lives up to its potential like this year’s group.

“It has been such a blessing,” she said. “To see all the hard work and effort pay off.”