Midfield maestros fuel Lady Panthers’ fire

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By Scott Akanewich

Midfield is often referred to as the “engine room” of a soccer team.

For, that is where everything passes through – whether offensively or defensively – as the play constantly unfolds during the course of a contest.

Inside that ever-changing dynamic must be a group of players who possess all the critical qualities to properly influence the outcome of the proceedings.

Passing, vision, control and leadership are only a few of the attributes needed to guide a side to victory.

For the Liberty Hill girls’ squad, the quartet in the middle of the park consists of Emma Stephens, Mykenna Russo, Abbey Janicek and Madi Fuller.

Each one has her own primary strength and when successfully blended together form a recipe for scoring goals at one end of the pitch and preventing them at the other.

According to Lady Panthers head Coach Darren Bauer, his Fantastic Four forms an almost unbeatable combination – as if they are both immovable object and irresistible force all rolled into one.

“We have players in our midfield who can do it all,” said Bauer. “All of them can shoot, pass, move and understand the game – they’re a complete package and each one of them adds something special to our team.”

Fuller, who is the leading returning scorer from last season’s side with 26 goals and 30 assists, is the most aggressive and physical of the group, he said.

“Madi is all about hard work,” said Bauer. “She has all kinds of athleticism.”

Janicek is the one who sees the field best and reacts accordingly.

“Abbey has very good vision of the entire field,” he said.

Stephens is the best of the bunch on the ball, with the ability to keep control while not slowing her run.

“Emma has tremendous speed while dribbling the ball,” said Bauer.

Russo is always the picture of composure.

“Mykenna has control – that’s her in a word,” he said.

Janicek said her role, as well as those of her midfield mates, must be on point at all times.

“Midfielders have to be awake the entire game,” she said. “Even when there are little distractions, you have to figure it out.”

A junior and team captain who chalked up eight goals and 10 assists last season, Janicek is a shifty player who is always trying to find even the slightest opening or weakness to exploit in an opponent.

“I like to find passes that can penetrate the defense,” she said. “I have to be crafty and find different spaces to operate in.”

Along with all her tangible responsibilities, Janicek and her fellow juniors on the roster must also fill the leadership void created by not having a single senior on the squad – something which only adds to what she must accomplish on the pitch, she said.

“It’s a little bit different and a lot more pressure,” said Janicek. “I always have to make a difference in the game – even if it means gathering the team to realize what we’re trying to do.”

Despite off-the-field differences between various players, Janicek said when the ball is kicked off, all of that is left on the sidelines for the greater good.

“We realize there are different cliques on our team,” she said. “But, when it’s time to play, we always come together.”

Bauer added the midfield helps alleviate the strain on the strikers at the top of the formation, with its myriad skills.

“Especially with our forwards – the way the midfield plays takes a lot of pressure off them,” he said. “All four always work hard to get the ball back when we lose it.”

Janicek said one of the critical elements to running the show the right way is to utilize the wide-open spaces which sometimes exist when an opponent fails to keep its shape.

“We have to make sure we use the entire field at one time,” she said. “Our holding midfielders have to see when someone makes a run forward and cover for them at the back.”

All four players in the midfield must also have the ability to be able to both react to what happens, as well as be able to anticipate what might happen next before it does, said Janicek.

“I think it’s a mixture of both,” she said. “All four midfielders know what each other likes to do to the point where we can almost see what’s going to happen next and then one of us has to react. We’re very hard to break down as a midfield because of the different styles of play each one of us has.”

Midfielders are counted on to be every bit a provider as well as a scorer when the situation dictates, but Janicek said she definitely prefers to find the back of the net herself – under certain conditions, that is.

“I definitely like attacking more than defending,” she said. “Also, I’d much rather score a goal than get an assist – but only if it’s a good one like into the upper corner or something.”

Of the four, Russo is new to the team this season, but the other three were all members of the Lady Panthers’ squad who were defeated in last year’s Class 4A state championship game by Stephenville by a score of 2-0, one of only three losses they endured over the course of the entire campaign and Janicek said the disappointment of that loss has fueled them as they looked forward to and got ready for this season.

“What that did was really light a fire under us coming into this season,” she said. “Even our young players who weren’t on that team watched and saw how much it hurt us.”

Two years ago, Liberty Hill lost in the state semifinals, while last season the Lady Panthers got one step closer to a title only to fall short in the final, so according to Janicek, the next logical step in the progression is to finally lift a trophy this time around.

“We got bronze the year before last and silver last season,” she said. “So, this year we’re looking to get gold.”

Janicek then broke down the strengths of her midfield teammates, beginning with Fuller.

“Madi loves to run – all you have to do is hit a ball forward and she’ll go and get it – she plays with a real fire,” she said. “Emma (Stephens) is really good on the ball and it’s hard to get it away from her and Mykenna (Russo) is always in between all of us looking for passes and keeping everything calm.”

When all four are clicking on all cylinders, it’s simply a joy to be a part of, said Janicek.

“It feels really good,” she said. “Everything is crisp and sharp like you’re running all over the field.”

So, what’s the one element a good midfielder must have over all else?

“Work ethic,” said Janicek. “You always have to go forward, but also track back to cover ground defensively.”

One word to describe the four?

“Dynamic,” said Bauer. “All of them are very determined and want to win gold this year.”

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