Under the bills of Kyle Marshall and Tyler Barrows’ baseball caps reside a bunch of stickers.
The stickers — lighting bolt decals that one might see on the side of a football helmet — represent Liberty Hill’s nine District 8-3A victories this season plus its two playoff wins. The Panthers will have a chance to pick up two more stickers this weekend, when they face Kennedale in a best-of-three regional quarterfinal series.
Since their caps are running out of space, Marshall, Barrows and their teammates may need to find a new place for those stickers. But that problem would be a welcomed one, especially since Liberty Hill started the season with nine consecutive losses.
An area finalist in 2012, Liberty Hill opened the 2013 season with only two returning starters: Marshall, a senior shortstop, and junior catcher Colby Schmidt. The Panthers dropped their season opener against Boerne and then lost eight more games to the likes of Hutto, Marble Falls and LBJ, all Class 4A teams.
“It wasn’t like we were losing to cupcakes,” Liberty Hill coach Mike Kristan said. “We were playing good teams. We had seven different spots that we were trying to figure out.”
The Panthers said this week that they didn’t worry about their slow start, but in an effort to get his team better focused before games, Kristan changed the Panthers’ warm-up drills.
Liberty Hill kept some of the basic calisthenics but eliminated jogs around the field. The pace picked up, too, as Kristan told his players to show more intensity.
The Panthers also made some changes of their own.
“I’m a very superstitious person,” said Barrows, a senior first baseman. “We got that one warm-up down, and we did the same exact thing every day. Even Kyle overthrew me once so he had to overthrow me every single time before a game. It worked out so we kept with it.”
Since their 0-9 start, the 8-3A champions have won 22 of 24 games, as Kristan posted the first 20-win season of his 10-year tenure. The combination of junior pitchers Dane Rumley, Kannon Prior and Cody Remore and Liberty Hill’s offense, which scored 14 runs in an area-round sweep of Fort Worth Castleberry, has fueled the Panthers’ turnaround.
“Our hitting is better than it was last year, and our defense is better,” Kristan said. “Our pitching is about the same. Of those three areas, if you can get better in two of them, you’ve got a chance to win a few games.”
The Panthers are making their first regional-quarterfinal appearance since back-to-back trips in 2008-09.
“It’s a great feeling to be out here in the third round,” Barrows said. “A lot of people had many doubts about us, especially after we started 0-9. (They) were questioning what we were going to do this year.”
Liberty Hill opened the season with the goal of reaching the third round of the 3A playoffs. Now, just they did with their warm-up drills, the Panthers had have to re-adjust their plans.
“Once we’re here, there’s a lot more that we want,” Marshall said. “That was as far as we wanted to go then, but now we’re in the future and we need to keep it going and just go as far as we can.”