Panthers open district with wins over Salado, Taylor

The Panthers celebrate a win over Austin Akins in Marble Falls. The Panthers are now 2-0 in district play after beating Salado on Tuesday, March 21. (Alex Rubio Photo)

The Panthers celebrate a win over Austin Akins in Marble Falls. The Panthers are now 2-0 in district play after beating Salado on Tuesday, March 21.
(Alex Rubio Photo)

By Paul Livengood

Liberty Hill Head Baseball Coach Michael Kristan called Salado and Taylor the two toughest teams in the district. The Panthers’ first two district games happened to be against the Ducks and the Eagles, and the Panthers defeated both of them.

The stronghold for the district title runs through Liberty Hill, at least for the moment.

The Panthers traveled to Salado Tuesday night, March 21, to take on the Eagles, and took care of business by defeating Salado High School 6-0.

The first two innings gave the impression of a pitchers’ duel, as the two opposing pitchers combined for eight strikeouts (four each).

Liberty Hill took advantage of a few walks in the third inning, however, and opened up a 5-0 lead off a Wyatt Cheney RBI single and Damian Natividad two-RBI double.

“We finally hit the ball up the middle and put the ball in play and made some contact,” Kristan said. “That helps a lot.”

After four innings of play, Liberty Hill added another run, extending the lead to six. Freeman’s five innings of work followed, including six total strikeouts, and Turner Gryseels’ relief effort in the final two innings kept the Eagles from making a comeback.

Cheney finished the game two for three at the plate with a double and a walk.

Last Friday, March 17, Liberty Hill returned home with a bang. The Panthers had not played a home game in nearly a month. After three straight tournaments on the road, the team secured a vital win in its first district game against a highly-ranked Taylor Ducks ball club. Liberty Hill defeated Taylor 2-1.

“I was proud of (the team’s) effort,” Kristan said. “We always talk about effort and working hard. It sounds cliché-ish, but we don’t ever give up. When you feel good about each other and your teammates, good things usually happen.”

Taylor came into the game as the sixth-ranked 4A team in Texas and the odds-on favorite to take a stronghold on the district. The Ducks secured a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning after Cheney walked Nick Martinez, Joel Cruz sac bunted Martinez to second, and Gabe Jewett hit a line drive RBI double down the right field line.

Cruz kept the Panthers off the scoreboard for five innings from the pitcher’s mound, as he struck out 10 Panthers in the process.

“Their kid pitched great,” Kristan said. “He struck out 10, we didn’t have any hits, only had four guys on base through five or six innings. (Cruz) just got tired, and we were fortunate enough to get a big hit with some runners on base. That’s just baseball. You can win games like that and you can lose games like that. Fortunately, we won tonight.”

The Ducks’ ace lost his juice in the sixth inning. Garrett Wright broke the seal with a single in between the Ducks’ first baseman and second baseman — Liberty Hill’s first hit of the game. Cruz hit Chandler Freeman with one of his pitches for a walk. Cheney came to the plate, and the tide started to turn the Panthers way.

Cruz attempted to throw Wright out at second base, but none of his teammates were there to field the throw. Wright advanced to third and Freeman took second after Cruz’s mistake. With one out already in the books, Taylor decided to intentionally walk Cheney in order to load the bases, set up a potential double play and get out of the inning unscathed.

Gryseels made the Ducks pay. Gryseels hit a line drive single into center field and drove in two runs to give Liberty Hill the lead. The Ducks ended the inning with another strikeout, but the damage had already been done. In his at-bat, Gryseels had only one thing on his mind with the bases loaded and down a run.

“Clutch,” Gryseels said. “I’ve got to be clutch. I have to do what I can. I was comfortable going into that at bat because (Cruz) was a little off, starting to get a little inaccurate. I was thinking he was going to try and lay something right over the plate because he couldn’t throw a strike. I knew it was going to happen.”

Cheney struck out two of the Ducks’ last three batters in the top of the seventh, and Liberty Hill finished off the comeback. Kristan said the win over Taylor was huge for the team’s confidence moving forward.

“We always get that tough road to start with Taylor and Salado, the two teams that have won district the past two or three years, so it’s nice to take one away from them,” Kristan said. “When you go to Taylor, it’s always tough to play there, so if we let this one get away and then have to go play in a tough place like Salado, it would have been difficult. I’ll take (the win) and we’re not giving them back, that’s for sure.”

Cheney pitched a complete game and recorded seven strikeouts in the Panthers’ first district win.

“It felt great to come through for my team,” Cheney said. “We were in striking distance the whole game, so I knew we were going to come through. I’m just glad we got the ‘W’.”

The Panthers play their next home game Friday, March 24, against the Llano Yellowjackets.