Panthers outlast Ducks, sweep series with 3-0 win
By Paul Livengood
TAYLOR — Following a 2-1 home victory over the Taylor Ducks on March 17, who were ranked sixth in Conference 4A by MaxPreps.com at the time, Head Coach Michael Kristan described the victory as a crucial one. Kristan added that winning in Taylor is a tough outing, so taking half of the season series was a big deal for the Panthers’ program.
Liberty Hill rose to the challenge once again on Monday, April 10 and defeated the Ducks on the road 3-0, sweeping the former district powerhouse.
“That’s a big deal,” Kristan said of sweeping Taylor. “We haven’t done that in a while. It’s always fun to beat good teams. I told you when we came here, it was going to be tough to play. For about four or five innings, they were on us, and we just outlasted them today. Good game, good win.”
The Panthers faced Taylor ace Joel Cruz once again on Monday. He struck out 10 Panthers in the first matchup through six innings of work. On Monday, Cruz managed four strikeouts in five innings.
Liberty Hill lit up the scoreboard in the sixth inning of both games. Turner Gryseels was the hero of game one, hitting a two-RBI single with the bases loaded and down a run. In game two, the Panthers scored first by virtue of heads-up base running from Wyatt Cheney.
Cheney got on base with an infield hit, and stole second base in the next at bat. Gryseels was walked, which put runners on first and second base. Cheney stole third, the throw at third base sailed into left field, and Cheney proceeded to steal home.
“I knew first pitch (Taylor) wouldn’t be expecting a steal, so I saw him put down a curveball, figured he would bounce it in the dirt, and just took off and good things happened,” Cheney said. “I turned mid-slide and saw the ball gone, so I could take off (for home plate).”
Gryseels advanced to third base as the Ducks attempted to throw out Cheney at home plate. Damian Natividad finished the at-bat with an RBI single to left field. Garrett Wright added one more run in the top of the seventh inning by stealing home after a wild pitch.
Up until the sixth inning, however, the Panthers and Ducks found themselves in a pitcher’s duel. Cheney faced off with Cruz during their first matchup. This time, it was Chandler Freeman’s turn. Freeman threw a complete game and racked up nine strikeouts against the Ducks on Monday.
“It was big, and I just threw them anything I could to keep my team in the ball game,” Freeman said. “Throw as hard as I could for as long as I could, and just let my defense do their work.”
Freeman cherished the opportunity to pitch against another ace pitcher in Cruz.
“It’s amazing, you know to be able to go out there against competition like that, when the other guy is just as good if not better than you,” Freeman said. “It just means you have to dig down deep and find something inside of you.”
Freeman and Cruz both pitched themselves out of jams in the first five innings. In the top of the fifth, Cruz struck out Wright with the bases loaded and two outs to keep the game deadlocked at 0-0. Freeman followed up by escaping the bottom of the fifth inning with Taylor base runners on second and third.
All eyes turn toward Salado this Thursday, April 13 at home. Liberty Hill defeated Salado on the road 6-0 on March 21. The Eagles are another team Kristan has mentioned in the past as one of the district’s top teams.
“We knew it was going to be a short week this week against two good opponents, so we are excited about the week,” Kristan said. “Our mindset is just to compete and be ready to play good teams.”
Monday’s victory extends Liberty Hill’s win streak to nine straight games, and improves their record to 7-0 in district play. At this rate, the Panthers could be within arm’s reach of their first district title since 2014.