Lady Panthers ‘put a ring on it’ in ceremony
A standing-room-only home side at War Memorial Stadium in Liberty witnessed a special ceremony at halftime that many thought they may never witness.
Following their celebrated march to a state championship, the Lady Panthers softball team had one final bit of business to take care of—championship rings.
It was a bit overwhelming for them and their coach.
“Very humbling and awe-inspiring to see the community out again for something that’s so unique for our fans,” said Coach Karen Slack.
Met with a standing ovation for their achievement, the Lady Panthers, one by one, were called up to receive their championship ring and photo opportunity.
“It still kind of hits me every once in a-while,” Slack said, “but the other gear will come on once we start our season.”
Slack said she was tickled at her husband and assistant coach, Joe Slack.
“He was ready for the ring,” she laughed.
When the coach put her ring on for the first time, she said she felt like it was the last touch of something so fantastic that changed a lot of lives.
“I’m just so happy to be a part of that,” she said. “Those girls are forever changed for what happened.”
For freshman Kaci West, MVP for the state title game, it was a momentous occasion.
“It was very special. Just seeing all the smiles and fun on everybody’s face after all the hard work paid off,” West said.
The freshman and Baylor commit has pitched in select ball tournaments and earned some other rings, but not like this.
“This one by far is the most special,” she said.
“You build a chemistry, but this one is us constantly striving to be the best especially this year when we made history,” she said. “It’s definitely worth it.”
On the youth of the team, West was succinct.
“Don’t ever count out the underclassmen,” she said. “Anybody on the team can show up.”
West, who credits her teammates for backing her up on the mound, said she was proud of the accomplishment.
“It’s all about the heart and the want to and we had it this year,” she said.
They are the first in the history of the school to win a state championship.
They are also one of the youngest teams in the state’s history of softball with seven freshmen, starting four, to earn a state title.
“It will be forever special here just in people knocking down doors,” she said.
Slack said since the championship run, she’s had so many offers for help because of the success and it’s put Liberty on the map.
“There’s a lot of good things that come with that,” she said.
Normally averaging 70-80 kids at her summer camp, this year they hosted close to 250 students.
“We’re not a wealthy school district and there are offers out there to help us improve our athletic facilities. At least the discussion is happening where before, there was no discussion,” she said enthusiastically.
“To do what we did with that group is really special, especially knowing that we will have them for more years to come,” she said.
Talking about the past also means a look to the future. The Lady Panthers, after UIL realignment, have been thrown into a new district with four first place teams in it.
“All of them were district champions,” Slack said. “We’re no longer a secret anymore. People will game plan for us.”
This year, they’ve also added Barbers Hill, a top 5A program to their schedule.
“We’ve also added a few stronger teams to give us more looks at pitching,” she said.
“I feel good about where our skill and talent level are it’s just that every game is going to be tough this year. It’s never going to be easy,” she said.
As the state champion, the Lady Panthers will have a target on their backs with teams hoping to earn the title of beating the state champs.
“Our starters are used to having a bullseye on their backs,” she said. “That was what so special about this team and their success was handling the pressure,” Slack said. “We had a lot of failures, but they’d get right back into it in the next inning or game,” she said.
One of the remarkable feats on the road through the playoffs was a second game loss to No. 1 Waco Robinson, but the Lady Panthers bounced back in the next game for a win that vaulted them further in their run to the state title.
“Waco Robinson was the hardest team we played,” Slack said without any doubt. “They were hard to game plan for, they were talented, and they were coached well, especially by their assistant coaches,” she said.
They also have a winning tradition so the expectations every year are high.
“If I had a series to pick as our hardest, it would have been Robinson,” Slack said.
Freshman turned sophomore pitching phenom West will return to the mound to lead the Lady Panthers and she’ll have some additional help.
“We have a freshman and we still have a couple of underclassmen, Mikaelah Burkland and Kamryn Turner who are also bullpen pitchers who come in and give us a few innings when we need them,” the coach said.
Both will be ready to go.
The coach was thankful to the school district for their support during the run and with the many honors bestowed on the team.
“I’m so glad that our school district did this to honor our kids,” she said. “The school district did not skimp on the rings and we are so thankful.”
There is one final piece in the celebration of the team’s achievement. They are planning a monument that will be close to the softball field.
“We’re still in the design phase and it will take about 120 days to complete. It will be unveiled and dedicated in the middle of our season,” she said.
Slack was also excited that a look back 50 years from now in the annals of history will have her team documented as the best in the state of Texas.