Panthers baseball camp emphasizes enjoyment

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By Scott Akanewich

Carson Riley glided along on his stomach after a headfirst dive onto a slip-and-slide set up along the third base line, leaving a rooster tail of water in his wake.

Sure, the annual Liberty Hill youth baseball camp, which is held on the same field where the Panthers play their games, is a four-day extravaganza during which players of all ages are taught fundamentals in all phases of the game.

But, that doesn’t mean there can’t be some hijinxs mixed in, said Liberty Hill head coach Steve Hutcherson.

“We always want to blend in a lot of fun,” he said. “Because we want them to enjoy their time here.”

In all, 260 campers participated in the event, which was divided up daily into three different groups – first through third, fourth through sixth and seventh through ninth-graders.

According to Hutcherson, each session needs to be specifically customized to the age of the players and their capacity for learning the game.

“With the younger kids, some already have a pretty good grasp,” said Hutcherson. “While with the older ones, we’ll amp up what we’re trying to teach them.”

Sometimes the message is exactly the same, but the delivery needs to be different, specifically when it comes to the terminology used to convey words of wisdom, he said.

“For example, we’ll tell older kids to stay inside the ball when they swing,” said Hutcherson, who just finished up his third season as Panthers head coach. “But we tell the younger ones to just hit line drives.”

Riley was only one of several current Panthers players who were on hand to act as instructors and said it’s enjoyable to interact with the campers.

“It’s super-cool when the kids recognize who you are,” he said.

In fact, Riley – a sophomore catcher – was one of those in attendance on the other side of the proceedings just a few years ago and recalled his experience in meeting some of the varsity players he looked up to.

“I remember when I was a camper and (former Liberty Hill players) Rowen (Guerra) and (Ryan) Flake were here,” said Riley. “Seeing all the high school players out here made me want to be a varsity player myself.”

Fast-forward to the present and he’s mingling with possible future teammates, which allows him a preview of some of the talent in the Purple-and-Gold pipeline.

“You get to see who you might be working with,” he said.

When he thinks back to when he attended the camp, Riley said there’s one thing he looks for in the youngsters of today he wanted to display when he was one of them.

“One of the best things you do is just come out here and hustle,” he said. “Show the coaches you have a passion for the game.”

Hutcherson said having his current players participating is a tribute to their commitment to the Panthers program.

“It’s unbelievable what these guys are willing to come out here and do for us over four days,” he said. “They’re not getting paid or anything – they just want to give back to the program.”

However, the appreciation doesn’t end there.

“I just got an e-mail from a mom today,” said Hutcherson. “She was just really appreciative of the fact the high school kids were spending so much time with the campers.”

For Hutcherson, the interaction the campers have with players they both look up to and aspire to be like one day is one of the most special parts of the entire experience, he said.

“If any of them came to any of our games this season, they were sitting in the stands watching these guys play,” said Hutcherson. “Now, they’re standing next to them on the field.”

Aside from the social aspect, though, there are some serious baseball skills to be taught and learned over the course of the eight hours of instruction each group gets over the four days – with one aspect always front and center, said Hutcherson.

“All of our fundamentals are consistent as far as what we teach each group,” he said. “For example, there’s a certain way to field a ground ball – regardless of how old you are. We tell these kids the same things we would tell (Panthers senior shortstop) Ryan Leary – that’s not going to change.”

During the early-evening session on the final day of the camp, there were various stations set up all around the infield and outfield with groups rotating between them.

Down in the right-field corner, campers were hitting a soccer ball off a tee and attempting to score a goal past defenders guarding a pair of cones that served as a net – an activity designed to emphasize proper follow-through on one’s swing, said Hutcherson.

“In order to hit a heavier ball, you have to really drive through it,” he said. “(Liberty Hill pitching) Coach (Kyle) Buescher had the idea to add in the goal and have them try to hit it past people just like in a game.”

Speaking of games, Hutcherson said he likes to integrate some into the final two days of the camp to put a cherry on top of the drills sundae that has been served to the campers during the first two days.

“On the third and fourth days, we add games for them to play,” he said. “So, that way, they can get away from the individual stuff a bit.”

Like the pickup contest that was going on in center field with a tennis ball substituted for the usual stitched cowhide spheroid, as batters took aim for the fences – but only after earning the right to do so.

“Before today, we wanted them to hit nothing but line drives,” said Hutcherson. “On the final day, we allow them to try to hit bombs.”

One camper barely missed clearing the high fence in center above the “366” sign, which measures the distance from home plate, as the ball clanked off the metal wall and fell harmlessly to the ground.

Better luck next time for the batter, but that’s one of the main objectives of the camp – to continue to improve skills not just over the four days of the event, but on into the future.

“We know we’ll get these kids back year after year if they come out here and have fun,” said Hutcherson. “When that happens, we know we can teach them everything we want to over time.”

Many players these days are much more polished in the nuances of the game compared to the past, he said.

“Not as many of the kids we get now are as much of a blank slate,” said Hutcherson. “But, baseball is tricky to teach because there are so many different ways to teach different things, we just want them to have an open mind. But, the kids who play travel ball and are more serious usually already have a good base of what we want them to do.”

By the time the campers pack up their gear and walk off the field for the final time, there’s one thing above all Hutcherson wants them to take with them through the gates as they leave, he said.

“We want them to get used to how we do things here and the terms we use,” said Hutcherson. “Because it might be different from what they’re used to hearing.”

On the fourth and final day, the waterslides are integrated into the equation in order to give the campers a block of instruction on proper sliding technique, but also some relief from the 90-plus-degree temperatures, which is just fine with Riley.

“Baseball’s meant to be fun,” he said. “It’s my favorite thing in the world.”

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