Boys’ soccer using preseason to fill open roles

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By Lance Catchings

The Liberty Hill boys’ soccer program may have surprised some people last season by making it all the way to the Regional Final.

After an up and down start the Panthers reeled off 13 straight wins before coming up just short in a 1-0 loss to Progreso to finish the year 18-6-2. That team graduated nine seniors, some who were major pieces for success.

“We played well against Progreso in the Regional Final,” said Head Coach Darren Bauer. “We had a lot of turnover with that graduating class, so this year will be interesting. Our offense will be explosive, and our defense has the potential to be good. The question is where our players fill out. We had some big names leave like Bryce Stratton and Michael Shipley. They were both big contributors for us. It will be about getting the personnel in the right positions, because we have the ability.”

While they may not be as deep a team as they were last year, Bauer believes they still have the talent to get to the Regional Final and beyond if they come in and work hard every day.

“We might not be as deep off the bench as we were last year, but we have the personnel to get back to where we were,” he said. “The guys will have to come in and work hard, so a big part of their success will be mentality. Last year, early on, we were not a very good team. We lost some games we shouldn’t have, but the guys came in and wanted to get better. They forced themselves to work harder, because they didn’t want to have that type of season. We will have some growing pains in the beginning, especially missing the Shipley brothers. They won’t get to come out with us until one day before our first scrimmage because of the success of the football team this year. It is something we must overcome and a problem that schools with great success have. We won’t probably have our full team until mid-January or the beginning of district. Until then, it will be about learning and how the guys overcome some of our deficiencies. They have the potential to do exactly what we did last year and go even further.”

As far as returning talent goes, the Panthers return the district MVP and one of the most talented forwards in central Texas in junior Jaron Frye. Matthew Shipley will also return and was named co-defensive player of the district last season. Senior Cade Campbell and junior Mason Shipley earned second team all-district honors last season. Bauer is also expecting a breakout year from sophomore forward Jessie Anaya this season. Senior Colton Walter will also heavily be relied upon.

“Everybody knows about Jaron this season,” Bauer said. “Colton will make a big impact, and he will have to take on a different role than he did last year, but he is very capable. Jessie Anaya got some time last year off the bench and showed some promise, and we will put a lot on his shoulders. The Shipleys are coming back, which is a great addition. We had a couple holes we were worried about, and we have some players that are ready to step in. The big things I have talked to Jaron about is they plan to put two or more guys on him. All that means is that our other players must step up and we will do it in other ways, just not always through Jaron. We must become more dynamic offensively. We must find out who will fill the goals we are missing from Bryce and Michael since graduation.”

Although it’s a virtual guarantee that opposing teams will be more focused on stopping Frye this season, Bauer thinks his production will remain top-notch.

“As much as I say they will mark Jaron, he will just want it more,” Buer said. “He will never give up, and he is just the type of player that wants to get it done. Teams will try to mark him out of the game, and we believe that will open it up for some of our other players. It will be fun once we start clicking.”

Defensively, the Panthers return many of their core players, but with the holes that graduation left, some of them will have to adjust to new roles.

“We have our whole defensive back line returning, and almost all of them will be moving to different positions,” Bauer said. “We can go 0-10 in our first 10 games, but as long as we win a district championship and are ready for the playoffs, I’ll be happy. We must replace our goalie, and that was a big hole to fill. Parker Sargent cleaned up a lot of things for us last season, and that is our biggest hole based on inexperience. Having confidence in your goalie is huge. If we don’t allow any shots, we’ll be good.”

The inaugural Panther Cup will take place Thursday through Saturday, and Bauer only scheduled tough opponents. It won’t take long for the Panthers to find out where they stand, because the team that knocked them out of the Regional Final will be in attendance.

“Alvarado, Taylor, Midlothian-Heritage, Progreso and Stephenville; those are the teams I wanted us to play,” Bauer said. “We played Stephenville last year and lost 1-0. We played Alvarado and won 2-1. We beat Taylor twice, but they were both tough games. Heritage is going to be good. This will be a good tournament on the guys’ side, and will probably be the best tournament we’ve ever been to on the guys’ side. It will be about learning and getting better. Some of the players asked why we were playing Progreso so early, and it’s so we can find out where we are. It is a pre-district schedule that will get us ready to play. You can go 20-0 in regular season and lose your first playoff game and it does you no good.”

After realignment over the summer, the Panthers moved to District 27-4A this season. Liberty Hill dropped tough opponent Taylor from their district, but picked up Salado again, renewing that district rivalry. Stephenville, Jarrell, Florence, Little River Academy, Burnet and Lampasas will also join them.

“We go in with the same mentality no matter who is in our district,” Bauer said. “Anything less than a district title is a disappointment in our eyes. It will be tough, because every year we play Salado, it’s a battle. Last year, we beat them 4-1, but it’s a battle every time we play them. Jarrell is getting a lot better. They had a good year last year and they will only get better. Every year, district is a challenge, and this year will be no different. The expectations are always high, and every year, we have a target on our backs.”

The Panthers hosted their first annual alumni scrimmage Dec. 28. The alumni took a 5-2 victory over the varsity, but at the end of the match, it was all smiles for the Panther soccer program.

“It was great to see everyone back supporting our program,” Bauer said. “This year looks very bright.”

The Panthers scrimmaged Hutto Tuesday night, as well, and open regular season play against Alvarado in the Panther Cup Thursday at 6 p.m. Friday, the team will play a double-header at noon against Taylor and 6 p.m. against Midlothian Heritage. They close out the Panther Cup Saturday at 10 a.m. with the much-anticipated rematch against Progreso.

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