Lady Panthers fall short in title pursuit

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By Scott Akanewich
Sports Editor

Mykenna Russo has made a living over the course of her Liberty Hill soccer career by cranking up and shooting from long distance and often finding the back of the net in the process.

So, when the Lady Panthers’ senior midfielder cracked one from 30 yards out in the second half of their 2-0 regional quarterfinal defeat against Dripping Springs at Westlake High School on Friday night, it was a familiar sight to see the ball arcing over the goalkeeper’s head, only for it to deflect off the crossbar, then deflect off the keeper and in.

Only problem was the ball had rebounded off the football goalpost and not the crossbar of the soccer goal just beneath it, which meant the hysteria the Lady Panthers broke into thinking they had tied the score was short-lived, as the goal was waved off.

As a result, the Tigers maintained a 1-0 lead, which they would add to in the 75th minute to seal the victory and advance to the regional semifinals, while Liberty Hill was left to come to the realization its season was over.

Senior midfielder Abbey Janicek began to process what had just happened, as her four-year pursuit of a championship remained unfulfilled.

“I guess this means one chapter of my life is over,” she said. “But, it’s part of growing up and now it’s on to new things.”

For the opening 10 minutes, the contest was a cagey affair, as both teams attempted to figure one another out, with no scoring chances at either end.

Carson Glenn fired the first Liberty Hill shot of the evening in the 13th minute, but it was easily dealt with by Dripping Springs goalkeeper Caroline Dill and the game stayed scoreless.

The Tigers answered with a chance in the 18th minute on a corner only for the ball to flash over the top of the Liberty Hill net.

Finally, in the 24th minute, freshman Neeley Giessinger made a marauding run down the left flank before being on the receiving end of a full-blooded challenge by a Tigers defender which sent her flying to the ground and landing heavily, with the ball going out for a corner.

However, the ensuing Alyssa Lee effort went wanting, as the ball made its way all the way through a maze of bodies in front of the Dripping Springs net without anyone being able to get on the end of it.

Moments later in the 29th minute, the Tigers’ Taliyah Copeland broke in on goal and beat Lady Panthers’ goalkeeper Kylee Bush low to the left corner of the net for a 1-0 Dripping Springs lead.

Janicek said the pace of the proceedings increased after the goal.

“Everything intensified,” she said. “We knew what we had to do.”

After scoring, the Tigers kept the pressure on and two minutes later in the 31st, it was Copeland again, only this time on the other end of the supply line as she passed the ball to Sofia Picucci, who carried it all the way to the end line before firing an inch-perfect cross to teammate Gracie Green, who directed it on goal only for Bush to make a tremendous last-second reaction save.

Bush again came to the rescue with another save in the 35th minute to keep the Lady Panthers’ halftime deficit at 1-0.

As the second half began, it was Liberty Hill who answered the bell with renewed vigor.

Following a Bryden Bourgeois free kick from 35 yards out which sailed into the arms of Dill, it was Madi Fuller, who sent a corner into the area in the 47th minute to test her once again and Glenn got her head on the ball and directed it on frame, but Dill was quick enough to make the save.

At this point, the Lady Panthers were bossing possession and moving the ball effectively in the final third as they chased the game and were at last able to exploit open spaces in the Dripping Springs defense, said Janicek.

“We had a lot more movement and were finding open spots,” she said. “They were playing a high line, so we knew the backside was open.”

Emma Stephens – who had largely been nullified to that point by dogged Tigers defending – broke in on goal in the 64th minute, only to have the ball tackled away at the last possible moment by a pursuing defender as Dill came off her line to challenge.

Fuller took the ensuing corner after the ball had gone out of play, but to no avail.

Moments later in the 75th minute, as the Lady Panthers desperately hunted an equalizer, Dripping Springs’ leading scorer Picucci picked up a loose ball directly in front of goal and slotted home to make the score 2-0 and in doing so, killed off the game and Liberty Hill’s season in one fell swoop.

According to Liberty Hill head coach Darren Bauer, his side executed its game plan to perfection.

“We played exactly how we wanted to,” said Bauer. “Sure, we’re disappointed, but we have to put things into perspective.”

The game had a physical edge throughout, as the referee let several rough challenges on both sides go unpunished, but Bauer said that’s all part and parcel of Class 5A playoff soccer.

“You have to be able to play physical like that at this level,” he said. “It was just a physical, aggressive game – that’s what made tonight so good.”

Janicek also appreciated the rough stuff going uncalled as the game unfolded.

“I like when it gets physical,” she said. “But, some people tend to exaggerate and flop.”

Bauer added the high line Dripping Springs plays was cause for concern, but could be exploited if handled correctly – although not an easy task.

“If you can deal with that, you’ll have success,” he said. “But, a lot of teams can’t.”

As the clock on the scoreboard ticked down on the Lady Panthers’ season and finally reached zero, the gravity of the situation began to sink in – especially for one particular group of his players, said Bauer.

“For our seniors, this is really difficult with the realization their high-school career is over,” he said. “But, for the past four years, I’m very proud of what they’ve done.”

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