The roster differences between Peoria softball and Liberty tells the tale.
The Panthers feature an experienced roster anchored by seniors who have state tournament experience. The Lions are a first-year varsity program with four juniors, a sophomore and six freshman - one of which is listed as a captain - and zero state tournament experience.
In fact, Liberty coach Kortny Hall had to explain to her girls being ranked No. 16 in the 5A-II power rankings meant they would be in the tournament if they hold that spot through next week.
"They didn't know the top 16 make the tournament," Hall said. "We're on that cusp (of making the playoffs) right now. To be in the running in our first year is really good and quite an accomplishment, especially without any seniors."
However, those chances took a blow Tuesday as Peoria (14-5, 6-3 in West Valley region) opened an early lead and came away with a 12-3 win to remain one game back of first place Cactus. The Lions fall to 7-14, 4-5 in region.
It doesn't get any easier for Liberty, either. They'll face the Panthers Thursday and will play two against Cactus next week to finish the regular season.
"We know what we have ahead of us and we'll have to work hard to perform against the top teams in our region," Hall said.
The Lions first-year coach said to be in a position to reach the state tournament means a lot to the kids and the school considering their lack of experience.
"We've done very well considering our situation," Hall said. "We're a new varsity team without a senior and start six freshman. We're a young a team but the girls are doing their job.
"The team has really grown throughout the season in every facet of the game. There has been improvement in the outfield, infield, pitching, catching, hitting; the girls have worked hard this year and are starting to click."
Peoria coach Jim Sweet agreed.
"Being a first year club without seniors, Liberty deserves a lot of credit. They play hard, work hard and are building a program that could be very strong in a year or two. They have to take the positives from games right now and move forward."
The Lions did their job in the third Tuesday. Down 4-0 after two innings, Liberty clawed back into the game, getting within a run.
Designated player Chelsea Pixler led off with a grounder that got through Peoria third baseman Desiray Soto and advanced to second on a pass ball. Sophomore Brooke Heisserman struck out next, but the ball squirted past catcher Jessica Rix and the Liberty third baseman reached first ahead of the throw.
Pixler got the Lions on the board scoring on freshman captain Melissa Sechrest's fielder's choise ground ball to second.
In what would be the game's craziest series, catcher Emily Clark followed with what should have been a sacrifice bunt, however, that ball hugged the foul line and remained fair. Pixler, seeing Soto wait for the ball to finish it's path rounded second and went for third. Soto retrieved the ball halfway down the foul line and tossed high to left fielder Andrea Demondo who was covering third. The ball sailed over her head and rolled down the left field line. Clark rounded second and slid into third while the throw from left field went wide of the target, allowing Clark to scamper home with Liberty's third run.
Sweet boiled the third inning down to a lack of focus on his team's part, and they rebounded from that point as sophomore pitcher Rachel Thompson shackled the Lion offense, scattering three hits through the next four innings while striking out eight.
"We hit the ball hard today and got some good pitching from Rachel (Thompson)," Sweet said. "We had a little trouble in the third with some errors and I think the girls lost their focus a little - they may have thought the game was won, so they dropped their focus a bit - but rebounded well after that."
The Panthers tacked on three in their half of the third taking advantage of four walks an error and a sacrifice bunt by shortstop Victoria Mendoza. Peoria sent eight hitters to the plate in the inning.
Senior first baseman Tanya Eckles helped the cause on senior day at Peoria with a booming triple down the right field line and scored on Mendoza's base hit up the middle.
Peoria threatened the run-limit in the fifth, but was thwarted by Liberty's junior left fielder Amanda Dehrmond's diving catch in the gap. If the Lion captain doesn't make the play, Eckles double on the next at bat would have scored Ariana Romero to push the 10-run limit. However, Eckles was stranded and Liberty held on to complete the game.
While Eckles went 2-for-3 with an RBI and two runs scored, Sweet's praise went to sophomore hurler Thompson, who struck out 13 and allowed five hits. She also went 2-for-3 with three runs scored and an RBI.
"Rachel pitched well for us today," Sweet said. "She had 13 strikeouts and was locating her pitches well. I think in the end she was rearing back to get a little oomph. In softball, having a pitcher who controls the game like Rachel did means everything."