Lady Panthers eliminated in first round of playoffs
By Scott Akanewich
For the second straight season, Liberty Hill met Alamo Heights in the opening round of the Class 5A state playoffs and for the second consecutive time, the Mules eliminated the Lady Panthers, by a score of 3-0 (25-21, 25-15, 25-17).
There were a few differences this time around, though – the length of the match and the location.
Last season Liberty Hill lost in four sets at Seguin High School after having earned the No. 3 seed in the bi-district round of the postseason, while this year saw them defeated in straight sets at Canyon Lake after entering as the No. 2 seed.
However, one thing which was the same was the sheer disappointment as the Lady Panthers walked off the court after being vanquished once again by the same opponent.
According to Liberty Hill head coach Gretchen Peterson, both teams were more high-powered in the rematch.
“We’re definitely better than we were last year – we have more weapons,” said Peterson. “But, Alamo Heights is a team which has played together for a long time. We knew they would have some great swings.”
With a front line which all stand well over six feet, the Mules imposed their will from the outset in jumping out to a quick 4-1 lead in the opening set, but then it was Maddi Rowley to the rescue as the senior outside hitter hammered home five kills in quick succession to help the Lady Panthers level the score at 10-10.
But, Liberty Hill never recovered from a 6-0 Alamo Heights run which immediately followed a Kealy Dirner kill which evened the score and despite getting back to within a pair of points at 21-19 on an Ailie Hair ace, the Mules held on for the set victory.
Even after failing to complete its comeback in the opening set, Liberty Hill carried the positive momentum of the failed fightback into the second stanza.
Rowley collected another kill – after pounding six in the first set – and the Lady Panthers took their first lead of the match at 3-2, which was followed by a Hair block to double the advantage to 4-2.
Unfortunately, the furious sequence only seemed to stir the Mules from a slumber, as Alamo Heights quickly regained control of the proceedings by getting the lead back and building it to as much as 10 points before finally prevailing, 25-15.
Morgan Poulain hit a winner to begin the third set, but a modest 2-1 Lady Panthers lead would prove to be the last time they were ahead the rest of the match.
Gigi Mason had a pair of kills to help keep it close, along with four more from Rowley, but the Mules proved too stubborn in securing the victory.
Peterson said her team failed to achieve its two primary objectives entering the match.
“We knew we needed to serve-receive well and slow them down on defense,” she said. We didn’t execute on those things.”
Rowley led Liberty Hill with 14 kills, while Hair and Mason each added four.
Emma Parsons supplied 27 assists and nine digs to go with nine more from Haley Kuhlmann, with Keegan Walton adding seven.
Hair also had a pair of blocks and an ace, while Dirner served an ace and had a block to go with one from Rowley in the match.
Peterson said the end of a long campaign is always sudden, but not always expected.
“Seasons have to end at some point, but you’re never really ready for it and we definitely didn’t want it to end this early,” she said. “We did a lot of good things tonight, but we just didn’t do it enough.”
Peterson added there was very little room for error for her team in the contest considering the quality of the opposition.
“There’s not much we can do if they’re swinging over our block,” she said. “But, we can’t be giving away points when we know they’re going to get some we can’t do anything about.”
Liberty Hill finished the season with an overall record of 36-11, including 11-3 in district play, which was good for a second-place finish in the standings.
Overall, Peterson was pleased with the grit and determination her players showed all season, if not with the result from its final match.
“It’s definitely disappointing to be in this situation again, but it doesn’t define us,” she said. “I’m thankful for each and every one of these girls and what they’ve given to the program and I’m proud of them.”
Liberty Hill 3, Cedar Park 1
The last time Cedar Park paid a visit to the Panther Den a week earlier, the Timberwolves left with a four-set win over the Lady Panthers, forcing a tie for second in the district standings.
After the deadlock remained upon the conclusion of the regular season, the teams required a playoff to determine which side would secure the district’s No. 2 seed heading into the opening round of the playoffs.
Again the match lasted four sets, but on this occasion, it was Liberty Hill who prevailed with a stirring 3-1 (25-21, 25-16, 22-25, 25-13) victory over its rivals and with it claimed the coveted seed which saw them travel to Canyon Lake on Tuesday to take on Alamo Heights in the bi-district round of the Class 5A state playoffs.
According to Peterson, the squads seem to bring the best out in each other.
“I think it’s our kids,” said Peterson. “Both sides have a lot of talent and also know each other from club volleyball.”
Whatever the case may be, when these teams face one another, sparks are sure to fly.
Senior Parsons said she and her teammates were well-schooled on how to handle what the Timberwolves would throw at them.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about what we had to do against them,” she said. “Like working on specific things, staying focused and finding plays which worked for us.”
Gigi Mason got the ball rolling for the hosts with a kill for the opening point of the match, which was quickly followed by a pair each from seniors Hair and Rowley, the latter two sanwiched around a winner from Bailey Becker, as the
Lady Panthers built as much as a seven-point lead at 17-10.
However, the Timberwolves hung tough in forcing Liberty Hill to hold off a furious assault by the visitors.
Dirner contributed a pair of kills late in the set, along with another from Mason before Rowley slammed the door with the set-winner.
Seven days earlier against Cedar Park, the Lady Panthers had also won the opening set, only to drop three straight in defeat, so this time around they were determined to not let history repeat itself, said Peterson.
“We really learned our lessons in that one,” she said. “We made too many errors, got complacent and focused too much on what they were doing.”
To that end, Hair and Mason hammered home kills to open the second stanza, but Cedar Park took its first lead of the match at 3-2.
However, the advantage was short-lived, as the Lady Panthers hosted a block party at the net, with Parsons rejecting a Timberwolves attempt, followed by a double-team by Rowley and Hair to shut down another attack.
From there, the Lady Panthers fully seized the momentum of the match in extending their lead all the way to 18-10 during a run which included aces by Parsons and Becker, before Mason collected another pair of kills and Dirner finished off the set with one.
But, Cedar Park showed why they had won 11 of 14 district matches this season in a third set which saw them reverse their fortunes.
With the score level at 6-6, the Timberwolves put together an 8-1 run to take a 14-7 lead before Mason stopped the bleeding with a kill.
But, it only temporarily stemmed the tide, as Cedar Park went up, 19-11.
At that point, it was Liberty Hill’s turn to make a run and that’s exactly what they did in closing the deficit to as little as two points at 21-19 on the strength of an ace from Parsons and kills from Rowley and Mason during an 8-2 run.
Alas, the Timberwolves were able to hold off the home team and get themselves back into the match with the set win.
Parsons said the Lady Panthers may have let down a bit after winning the opening two sets.
“I think maybe we got a little complacent, like we had this one in the bag,” she said. “But, we remembered what happended last time against them and didn’t want it to happen again, so we just had to keep our energy high.”
In the fourth set, Liberty Hill came out and showed the same level of intensity which had given them the high ground early in the match, but the Timberwolves matched the moxie the home side had on display.
Hair seemed to be on a mission to not the match slip away by serving up a pair of aces, which bookended three kills and the Lady Panthers led, 8-5.
From there, Rowley, Parsons and Mason traded off in pounding the Cedar Park defense with a variety of shots in keeping the visitors off balance, as the lead grew to as much as 23-10.
Finally, Rowley got the match-winner and was quickly swarmed by her teammates in a raucous celebration as the Lady Panthers’ bench joyously spilled out onto the court.
In the aftermath, Peterson praised Parsons for the control she exuded over the proceedings.
“Emma played really well in moving the ball around,” she said. “Our hitters really trusted her.”
Peterson attributed her team’s ability to finish off the Timberwolves this time to lessons they’ve learned in handling themselves in pressure situations.
“After the third set, we knew we needed to re-establish what we had,” she said. “It helped a lot our girls have been in this situation before and have played four and five-set matches and with that comes a lot of confidence and composure.”
Rowley led the Lady Panthers with 15 kills on the evening, while Hair added 11 and Mason eight.
As for the rematch against the team which ended their season last year at the same stage, Peterson isn’t going to compare what took place then to the present, she said.
“Last season and this season are completely different,” said Peterson. “With COVID and starting the season late and everything, I think everybody was just trying to keep their heads above water. But, this feels right again.”
Peterson is confident her squad will put to good use the experience they had last year this time around against the Mules.
“The biggest difference for us is this year we’re different in a positive way,” she said. “We’re stronger, more mature and have been together longer.”
All that being said, though, she also knows the Lady Panthers must carry over the positive momentum and energy gained from the win over Cedar Park to the playoff opener.
“We know we’re going to have to bring this much intensity and probably a little more,” said Peterson. “But, I know our girls are up for the challenge and I’m excited – it’s a fun time of year.”