LHHS boys set for strong soccer season

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By Scott Akanewich

When the Panther Cup kicks off at Liberty Hill High School this week, the boys’ soccer team will embark on a new season – one which is filled with hope.

Last year, the Panthers had a fine campaign that saw them post an 18-3-3 record for the season, including a perfect 12-0 mark in district play.

However, the Purple-and-Gold’s quest for a state title came to an abrupt end with a 2-0 loss to Taylor in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs.

Last season, the club was coached by Darren Bauer, who headed up both the boys’ and girls’ squads, but as the new campaign begins, former assistant Wayne Munger becomes the new boys’ bench boss while Bauer will remain as girls’ head coach.

According to Munger, it’s of the utmost importance to make sure his charges are as versatile as possible to meet any challenge the opposition might throw their way.

“My philosophy is to have two different systems ready to play so we can adapt to our opponents,” said Munger. “But, we have a lot of speed, so we want to build around that.”

However, despite the fact there will always be a blueprint in place, there will still be plenty of room for improvisation, which allows the players to think outside the box as the play unfolds around them, he said.

“We believe in setting something up and then allowing them to play,” said Munger. “We want our players to always think through the game and keep the other team moving, which means our team needs to work hard because defense is extremely important.”

In years past, soccer was more a game of sending the ball far downfield, then retrieving it and setting up one’s attack, but nowadays with a more possession-based style taking hold around the world, the Panthers are quickly adapting to what will serve them best in the present and future – without closing the door completely on the past, he said.

“The modern game is to pass the ball all over the field,” said Munger. “But, we have a nice combination in which we can close the opposition down when we lose the ball and win it back by pressing the ball high up the pitch, which generates a lot of chances at goal. So, as soon as we lose the ball, we need to get it back.”

Having the ability to quickly read and break down an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses is also a critical aspect in gaining the upper hand from a strategic and tactical standpoint, he said.

“We always expect our teams to be able to pass and possess,” said Munger. “If another team isn’t able to play on the counter, then we can rest on the ball. In this way, we can see the team we want to be and expose the weaknesses of other teams. But, for me as a coach after watching countless hours of soccer, you can’t always play the best style – but you always expect quality.”

This season’s varsity squad is comprised of 14 players, mostly returners from last season’s team, which bore the disappointment of the aforementioned playoff defeat.

Junior center back Rhett Hofmann said it’s that experience that has been the primary motivator in lighting the fire for this season.

“So far, we’re doing pretty good in practice,” he said. “We fully expect to make it back to state and the frustration of what happened to us last year has really been coming out in our training.”

Despite the fact his primary job is to prevent goals, the Panthers’ defenders certainly have the green light to maraud forward when the opportunity presents itself – with one small asterisk attached, said Hofmann.

“When we make runs forward, we always need to cover one another at the back,” he said. “Our wing backs are very offensive-minded, which gives us as center backs a little more room to do more offensive things – that way the other defense always has an extra player to worry about.”

Hofmann also said in order for the back line to perform like a well-oiled goal-prevention machine, the only way is to spend time together on the training pitch in building a comprehensive understanding of one another.

“For us as a back line, it’s all about chemistry and trust,” he said. “About getting as much time on the ball as possible – the more you do that, the more predictable you are for your teammates.”

Munger added the three primary central defenders must always be on the same wavelength in order to maximize the group’s collective cohesion.

“All of them need to click together as a unit,” said Munger, of his center-back trio. “They need to be able to go forward, which means we need to find the back line with the most chemistry. Subbing our defenders isn’t something we want to do.”

In behind the Liberty Hill back line will be senior goalkeeper Uriel Diaz, who will be expected to provide the last line of defense for when opposing attacks do breach the Panthers – a role Munger is confident the experienced shot-stopper can handle.

“Uriel’s been here with us his entire high school career,” said Munger. “He’s got amazing hands, reaction speed and sheer athleticism – he’s also working on being a strong leader.”

The Panthers’ midfield remains a bit of a mixed bag at the moment, with plenty of competition for the open spots, he said.

“We have a couple people in mind and four returners coming back from last season,” said Munger. “A lot of people have their names in the hat and we’re still trying to identify some spots.”

Up front are a pair of strikers back from last season’s squad including sophomore Kegan Taggart and junior Jaron Frye, who will provide him with plenty of attacking flair, he said.

“Both of them are very confident,” said Munger. “But, we’re not going to have a clear-cut forward who we only depend on to score goals.”

Frye is certain if the Panthers are allowed to play their high-powered, offensive style, they’ll be very difficult to defend, he said.

“I don’t think anybody can stop us,” said Frye. “We’ve just put our mind to beating everybody.”

Frye added after all the years he’s spent at the top of formations and expected to deliver goals on a regular basis, he’s relatively unaffected by the mental and physical demands of the position.

“For me, it’s pretty easy,” he said. “I’ve been a forward since I was seven, so pressure only pushes me forward to score even more goals.”

Having a strike partner up front certainly helps when it comes to keeping opposing defenses off balance, said Frye.

“One of us can drop back into the midfield, which helps us to stay in the game longer,” he said. “Then our defense tries to stop everybody at the back and then helps the midfield get the ball to us.”

After all the pieces are in place, the season will begin at Panther Stadium on Jan. 2-4 with the second annual Panther Cup, an event that includes some of the top Class 4A squads from Central Texas and is an excellent way to evaluate one’s club right out of the gate against high-level competition, said Munger.

“We wanted to create a tournament which would have good quality to start the season,” he said. “We have teams coming here who are top-15 in the state, so it’s definitely a good gauge to see where we are and what changes we want to make moving forward.”

However, although that’s true, there’s a flip side that presents an element of risk, as well, said Munger.

“It can really work two ways,” he said. “A tournament like this can really be a positive motivator if we can really get behind our system so early on in the season, but it’s also a chance to get blown out of the water. But, regardless of results, we can still work on our formations and positions.”

Hofmann agrees with his coach as far as the significance of the tournament.

“We get to see some of the best times right away,” he said. “It gives us a good look at what the postseason will be like and even though it’s not district, it counts mentally for us because problems don’t begin in district.”

As for how it affects he and his fellow defenders as they plunge headlong into the new season, it can only bring about positive progression.

“You have to be able to be able to prevent goals in order to score them,” said Hofmann. “What we want to do is open up the field and move the ball – attack comes from defense.”

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