Lady Panthers advance with opening-round 3-0 win
By Scott Akanewich
Despite being a No. 1 seed after having been district champions, the Lady Panthers of Liberty Hill found themselves on a bus in traffic on a hot day on the way to their opening-round Class 5A state playoff game against Canyon in New Braunfels Friday.
After shaking off some early-game lethargy from the long ride, they showed why indeed they had prevailed in a difficult district with a comprehensive 3-0 victory over the Cougars.
Goals by Piper Tabor, Neeley Giessinger and Emma Stephens were all the Lady Panthers needed in seeing off a pesky side playing on its own patch in a contest of which the entire first half was contested under sunny skies and 80-degree temperatures.
According to Liberty Hill head coach Darren Bauer, the logistical side of the journey south certainly didn’t help his side get off to the cracking start he would’ve wanted them to.
“We had a long ride down with a lot of traffic and it was a hot day, which we’re not used to,” said Bauer. “But, in the second half, we played much better.”
The game began with some anxious moments for the visitors, including a goalmouth collision between Liberty Hill goalkeeper Kylee Bush and an onrushing attacker, which left the senior net minder with a small knot above one eye, as the teams traded possession early on.
Madi Fuller tested the Canyon keeper with a shot from distance in the 12th minute, which was parried away for a Liberty Hill corner, but was a harbinger of the kind of game the senior midfielder was going to have.
In the 21st minute Emma Stephens made a determined run down the left flank as the junior midfielder also provided the Cougars defense with a preview of what they would see time and again as the proceedings unfolded.
Tabor found herself alone with the ball in space and three defenders between her and the Canyon goal in the 25th minute, but with no support on the play, the gritty striker took the defense on herself and still managed to pull the trigger on a shot which missed just wide.
However, the next time she got the ball only three minutes later, Tabor made no mistake as she gathered up a perfectly-placed through ball off the boot of Mykenna Russo and found herself one-on-one with the keeper before coolly slotting home past a sprawled net minder for a 1-0 Liberty Hill lead.
Giessinger then came off the bench to give Tabor a breather up top and immediately made an impact on the game by breaking in on goal with teammate Kailey Fowler in forcing a save by the Canyon keeper.
The near-miss must have further energized Giessinger as the freshman flashed the form she has added this season to an already potent Lady Panthers attack with a sublime shot from 30 yards out which arced over the head of the keeper for a 2-0 Liberty Hill advantage in the 30th minute.
Senior midfielder Abbey Janicek had a shot saved in the 35th minute, as the visitors continued to apply pressure, but the game went to the half, 2-0.
Canyon came out a more determined team at the outset of the second stanza and quickly tested Bush, breaking in on her goal in the opening moments, only to be repelled by the keeper.
Stephens had an answer for that attack, as she sped down the right flank and sent a sumptuous cross into the box where Janicek got on the end of it, but the Cougars keeper was up to the task.
Finally, in the 47th minute, Fuller heaved a long throw-in along the left sideline, which Stephens expertly chested to her feet before taking flight down the wing.
After making a move around a Canyon defender, Stephens cut the ball back to her favored right foot and unleashed a curling shot into the upper right corner of the net, giving the keeper no chance and Liberty Hill a commanding 3-0 lead.
Stephens said she recognized an opening in the Canyon defense and quickly took advantage.
“I just saw a wide-open gap and attacked it,” she said.
In addition, she said getting another goal at 2-0 was massive in taking away any hope the home team still had at that point of getting back into the game.
“Once you get that third goal, it makes all the difference,” said Stephens. “I think it would’ve been different if they could’ve kept it at 2-0.”
Bauer said the play on which Stephens scored was something which has been simmering in the Lady Panthers’ pot for some time now.
“We’ve been working on that shot with Emma since the summer,” he said. “So, it was nice to finally see it pay off.”
But, there was still over a half-hour remaining before the Lady Panthers could claim victory and Canyon doggedly pursued each and every chance they had as one would expect with its season hanging in the balance.
However, from the point from which Stephens scored onward, Liberty Hill slowly took the air out of the ball by playing more of a possession game, not needed to push forward for any additional goals.
“At that point, we just wanted to kill off the game,” said Bauer.
But, try telling that to Fuller, who continued to relentlessly assault the Cougars’ defense time and again, with her perfect blend of speed, skill and grit, coming close in the 73rd and 76th minutes, which was no surprise to Bauer, he said.
“Well, that’s just Madi,” said Bauer. “She’s going to keep giving you everything she has regardless of the score.”
Senior center back Bryden Bourgeois had an inspired performance in shepherding the Lady Panthers’ back four and provided a physical presence throughout, which didn’t go unrecognized by Bauer.
“Bryden was top-notch tonight,” he said. “She just took care of business.”
With the business of dispatching their opening-round opponents out of the way, Liberty Hill will next face Medina Valley – who defeated Burbank, 4-0, in their opener – in the second round at a yet-to-be determined time, date and location.