New season on the pitch
By Scott Akanewich
One thing the Lady Panthers of Liberty Hill had absolutely no problem with last season was scoring goals.
By the boatload.
Not to mention they rarely conceded at their own end.
Head Coach Darren Bauer’s club averaged 6.36 goals per game, while only allowing 0.36.
Numbers like those will win a lot of soccer games and Liberty Hill did exactly that, posting a sparkling 25-3-2 record on the way to the Class 4A state championship game.
However, the Purple-and-Gold fell just short of their ultimate goal with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Stephenville in the title match.
This season, the Lady Panthers will attempt to reach the state semifinals for the third time in four seasons, but they will do so without senior leadership of any kind, as the roster doesn’t contain a single one.
As a result, the juniors are the de-facto seniors and will be depended on to lead the way for their younger teammates.
But, according to junior central defender and team captain Bryden Bourgeios, it won’t be an issue.
“Honestly, the way our team is built, we’ve always had leadership from everyone,” said Bourgeios, who scored six goals and provided nine assists last season. “Sometimes, it’s good to have leaders who are the same age as everyone else.”
Heading into a new season with such high expectations has created a pressure-packed environment for her and her teammates, but that can only bring the best out of them, she said.
“The people we lost from last year were really good and it’s a little nerve-wracking knowing what we have to do now,” said Bourgeios. “It’s stressful, but exciting and I think pressure helps me do better.”
Bauer said the reinforcements that have arrived will more than make up the difference for the players who were lost.
“We had three starting seniors and six overall last season – it was a pretty good class to lose,” he said. “But, the girls who have moved up from the junior varsity have gotten more mature and filled all the holes we had and this year our sophomores are taking on a lot more responsibility.”
Bauer intends for his side to employ an aggressive, attacking style of play in order to always keep the opposition on the defensive, he said.
“We want to play a possession-based game, keep the ball on the ground and press high up the field on defense,” said Bauer. “We’re going to be relentless and make you run around. We always try to play this way even as we get new girls on the team and we also want to add more pressure on defense.”
Bauer added the way last season ended provided a mixture of emotions.
“I think it was bittersweet because they finally got over the hump of making it to the semifinals and losing,” he said. “Even though we lost in the final, I wasn’t disappointed with the effort of the players.”
Despite the fact his team continues to remain true to its tactical roots, adjustments can always be made to prevent complacency from setting in, said Bauer.
“We’ll be fine as long as we keep our focus on what we’re doing and as long as we keep up pressure on the other team,” he said. “As long as we have our chemistry down because every year we do things a little different having to get the new girls used to varsity.”
Starting in goal will be junior Samantha Carter, who rarely allowed the ball to hit the back of her net last season in posting an impressive 18-2-2 record between the sticks to go with 16 clean sheets on the campaign.
“Sam makes exceptional saves,” said Bauer. “The best part is she teaches the younger girls very well. As a goalkeeper, she has already improved by leaps and bounds – it’s incredible.”
One thing which Carter has endured and come out better for was a broken rib suffered in last season’s state semifinal when she came out to challenge an attacking player with a crunching collision ensuing, which resulted in an even stronger and more confident shot-stopper, said Bauer.
“You always wonder how a player is going to bounce back from something like that,” he said. “But, ever since, she’s been absolutely fearless in commanding her area – there’s not much more we could ask of her.”
Along the Lady Panthers’ back line, Bourgeios will be expected to lock down opposing attacks with a combination of speed, skill and grit, said Bauer.
“Bryden’s not a natural center back, but she’s done an excellent job filling that role,” he said, of Bourgeios, who played in a holding midfield role last season. “She’s an incredibly hard worker and with her speed she can really get things in our midfield started.”
Bourgeios said she’s aware of the gravity of her situation in anchoring the Lady Panthers’ defense.
“I know I have to have a good game every time out,” she said. “I always have to be ready.”
She added the fact she and her teammates share common bonds helps in a myriad of ways – something she believes is unique not only in soccer, but Liberty Hill’s version.
“All the relationships we have with each other are great,” said Bourgeios. “I don’t know if it’s a small-school thing here or what, but soccer as a sport forces you to have those relationships with each other if you want to succeed – for us, it’s more family than friendship.”
One thing that is notably absent from the Lady Panthers’ set-up is infighting and any kind of adversarial situations, she said.
“(Coach) Bauer does a really good job of not letting us have any drama or anything,” said Bourgeois. “I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve gotten so far in recent years.”
Bourgeios also said what will make the Lady Panthers successful again this season is an all-inclusive mindset without reliance on any one individual.
“We’re working on a lot of different things and depending on everyone,” she said. “Nobody’s the star – we’re all working together all the time.”
However, it’s the Liberty Hill midfield that will be the crux of everything, said Bauer.
Junior and team captain Madi Fuller is the leading returning scorer, with the midfielder having netted 26 times last season, to go with 30 assists.
“I don’t think you’ll find a better midfield in the entire state,” he said, of Fuller, along with fellow juniors Abigail Janacek (also a team captain) and Mykenna Russo and sophomore Emma Stephens. “All of them have speed, vision, movement and the desire to improve.”
Bauer said although there is a definite blueprint as to how he wants them to play, there’s also plenty of room for creativity.
“They have a lot of freedom because of what they can do,” he said. “All of them can see the field and work together in realizing who does what.”
Up front will be junior striker Piper Tabor, who is the second-leading returning scorer from last season’s side with 23 goals and nine assists and provides the Lady Panthers will a clinical finisher in the final third, said Bauer.
“Piper’s like our cherry on top,” he said. “Because our midfield is allowed to do what they want, she can get in behind and stretch defenses – she has a great shot, is an excellent all-around striker and is very complimentary to our system.”
Bauer has plenty of talent at his disposal entering the new season, but all of it will ride on proper cohesion in how his side is able to work together like a well-oiled machine, he said.
“The big thing for us is our chemistry,” said Bauer. “We have a lot of good returning sophomores who are all stepping up big and in our freshmen we have hope for the future – we’re really getting along in practice so far.”
Bauer views his roster as an ever-changing work-in-progress – something that must always be adjusted and adapted not only for the present, but with one eye always on what’s ahead, he said.
“It’s not just about this year, but building for the future,” said Bauer. “We’re always getting ready for the year after by bringing in experienced freshmen and sophomores in order to have plenty of squad depth.”
But, first there’s still some unfinished business for this season’s club, said Bourgeois.
“First, we made it to the semifinals and lost, then we made it back and won, but lost in the final,” she said. “Hopefully, the third time will be the charm.”