GEORGETOWN – Slowly walking off the diamond at Georgetown High School, the Lorena Lady Leopards couldn’t help thinking that they’d beaten themselves.

Against a team that had won 36 games coming into the night, that’s not a place you can afford to be.

Lorena snatched a lead in the fifth inning, only to allow Liberty Hill to answer with the tying run in the bottom of the inning. Then the top-ranked Lady Panthers seized the advantage for good in the sixth, capitalizing on a Lorena error and a couple of walks to grab a 3-2 win in the opener of the teams’ Region III-4A championship softball series on Wednesday night.

“Got a big hit, took the lead late in the game,” Lorena coach Steve Dolezel said. “Normally we can get nine outs before they can get one (run). But we just didn’t today. They’re not No. 1 for a reason. They’ve lost only two games. We’re going to have to work to get two wins against them.”

Lorena (28-5) now faces the daunting task of toppling Liberty Hill (37-2-1) twice when the series resumes at 2 p.m. Saturday at Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton. If the Lady Leopards can vanquish the Lady Panthers in Saturday’s first game, a second game would follow for the right to advance on to the UIL state tournament in Austin.

Despite going hitless through the first four innings, the Lady Leopards clung to their hope. They continued to make solid contact off Liberty Hill pitcher Amber Wiggins, only to see the ball land in the glove of the Lady Panthers for much of the early stages of the game.

Then, the breakthrough arrived. With the score knotted at 1 from the first inning onward, the Lady Leopards made their charge in the fifth. Sophomore catcher Brooke Haberman led off by tapping a slow roller across the infield, and Liberty Hill couldn’t come up with the ball fast enough to throw Haberman out at first.

Haberman was nearly wiped out moments later when Breyanna Fincher tagged a come-backer to Wiggins, who then fired to first base to try to double off the runner. But Liberty Hill’s Samantha Barnett lost control of the ball after initially bringing it into her glove, and Haberman was ruled safe by the first-base umpire.

That was a critical development, too. Following a sacrifice bunt that moved Haberman to second, Kaci Donaldson cooked up a sizzler down the left-field line. That sent Dolezel into full windup mode in the third-base coaching box, waving Haberman home, while Donaldson raced into second with an RBI double.

Lorena’s 2-1 lead didn’t last long, though. In the bottom of the fifth, with a runner on second and two outs, Barnett smacked the ball to the gap in left-center. Lorena centerfielder Ashley Guyton made a noble effort, sprawling out in an attempt at a diving catch, but the ball eluded her reach and rolled to the fence for a game-tying double.

An inning later, Liberty Hill plated the go-ahead run without even needing to tally a hit off Lorena’s ace pitcher Rachel Williams. Kinsey Kuhlmann led off the inning with a dribbler that Lorena third baseman Jordan Generals bobbled.

Williams also walked a pair of hitters, as her offerings sailed a bit too far outside. Such developments allowed Kuhlmann to move over to third base, and she eventually darted homeward with the winning run on a wild pitch.

“There’s a few things we can do better,” Dolezel said. “Number one, we start off that inning with an error. I think we walked a couple in there. Obviously they didn’t have a hit that inning. We’ve just got to find a way at crunch time to get some outs.”

Lorena had one last-ditch effort to try to rally in the seventh, but Wiggins retired the side in order.

Lorena illuminated the scoreboard in the first without registering a hit. The Lady Leopards’ leadoff batter Donaldson struck out, but the ball skipped away from Liberty Hill catcher Logan Oehler and Donaldson scampered to first safely. She then advanced to second on a Wiggins wild pitch, and scored when Guyton dropped down a bunt that the Lady Panthers misplayed into an error.

But, in a trend that would continue, Liberty Hill rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the inning, Barnett skied a high fly to left that caromed off the wall and bounced back toward the infield, allowing her to dash around the bases for a triple. She scored promptly thereafter on a Joely Williamson groundout.

“Every time we scored, they answered,” Dolezel said.

After the game, Dolezel pulled his team aside for its usual postgame meeting in the outfield, and the message was simple: We can play better. Lorena dented Wiggins for only two hits, and hurt itself with walks and errors, and yet still nearly escaped with a win.

“We’ve been here before,” the coach said. “All we know is that we need to get that first game on Saturday and keep putting pressure on them. Our girls expect that they’re going to hit the ball a lot better Saturday.”

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