Lady Panthers pass tough home test
By Scott Akanewich
On Tuesday evening, the Lady Panthers of Liberty Hill were tested as they haven’t been since district play began this season.
Suffice to say, they passed with flying colors.
Despite a rugged challenge, Liberty Hill ran its current win streak to 17 matches with a 3-0 (25-15, 27-25, 25-21) victory against Salado.
Kindsee Escamilla led the Lady Panthers with nine kills, to go with eight from Emma Becker in a match which Liberty Hill head coach Gretchen Peterson said was a vital test for her team.
“We needed to know what it felt like to be in a match like this,” she said. “It was definitely a learning experience.”
However, for the entire first set, it looked as if it was going to be another breeze to victory for the Purple-and-Gold, as the home side stormed out to a commanding lead early on, with strong play from sophomore middle blocker Ailie Hair, who blocked a shot, then recorded a pair of kills.
Becker than got in on the act with a pair of kills of her own before Lilli Wilkins, Emily Huppee and Escamilla all had winners along with an Ashley Nelson ace for a 12-7 advantage.
A 5-0 Liberty Hill run late in the set made it 18-8, before a Becker kill and a Haley Kuhlmann ace stopped a 5-0 Salado run, with Wilkins hammering home a kill to finish the set.
But, in the second, a different Lady Eagles club came to play, making the stanza a see-saw affair which saw the lead change hands on several occasions.
Nelson and Huppee continued to pound the Salado defense, with four kills each in the second, but the visitors stood firm and continued to fight back time and again, prompting Peterson to call a pair of time-outs near the end of the set.
“I just told them we needed to find a way to win the set,” said Peterson. “We had a few balls fall in where there was no effort and miscommunication, so I told them they needed to not be afraid to make mistakes and to get out of their comfort zone.”
Following the pair of sideline conferences, the Lady Panthers held on to win the second set by a 27-25 score.
According to Wilkins, the wake-up call was exactly what she and her teammates needed at that point in the proceedings.
“I think it fine-tuned us,” said Wilkins. “We knew we couldn’t keep coasting and Salado played really well, which pushed us.”
The frantic finish to the second set proved to be a preview of the third as the tenacity carried over, but despite the Eagles taking a brief lead at 9-8 midway through, the Lady Panthers were able to prevail.
Wilkins especially came on strong in the third to help seal the deal, collecting three kills, a block and an ace and credited the raucous atmosphere created by the crowd with firing her up.
“For me, when it gets so loud, it motivates me,” she said. “At that point, I just really want to shove the ball down over the net.”
Becker and Emma Parsons supplied 15 and 14 assists, respectively, while Kuhlmann had six digs to go with four from Nelson. Hair blocked four shots, with Wilkins and Escamilla each getting a pair. Maddi Rowley served five aces to go along with two by Kuhlmann.
Peterson continued with the learning theme afterward.
“I felt we made some real mental gains with this match tonight,” she said. “I think we played more complete than we have all season and we were much more focused. We needed to make plays because it was a playoff atmosphere.”
Most gratifying for Peterson was the fact she got contributions from across the board, she said.
“Every player on our team made a momentum play,” said Peterson. “We had Ashleigh Dubbs come in for the first time at the end of the third set and the first ball she got was a kill, not to mention the great defensive plays by Emily (Huppee) and Emma (Parsons) – it was great to see them fill those roles.”
As for Wilkins’ final-set heroics, Peterson credited her junior middle blocker with developing proper chemistry with her teammates.
“Lilli has really been working well with both of our setters,” she said. “She made really smart decisions and played light at the net like it was hers – completely smooth.”
Wilkins said it was good for her and her teammates to emerge from such a heated match successful.
“At times, we were a bit nervous and hesitant, but we were able to lean on each other,” she said. “It was definitely the toughest match we’ve had in district.”
Peterson stressed the fact the Lady Panthers came through a gauntlet of trials and tribulations with a victory as something which will bode well for her squad when the pressure of postseason arrives.
“Certainly, it was great for everyone to get their glimpses,” she said. “We didn’t have a match like that yet this season where everyone clicked.”
Liberty Hill (34-13, 8-0) will next host Eastside Memorial on Friday at 6 p.m.