No spring raises fall questions

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By Scott Akanewich

Any football coach at any level will tell you one thing – football games aren’t won in the fall, they’re won in the spring.

Months before a squad hits the gridiron under the lights to kick off a new season, a strict regimen of readiness is religiously adhered to in order to ensure all the “i’s” are dotted and “t’s” are crossed to go along with all the Xs and Os.

However, this year those precious, invaluable hours spent to make sure everything is a go come the new season have been lost to everyone in the global pandemic and the Liberty Hill Panthers are certainly no exception.

According to Liberty Hill head coach Jeff Walker, the spring is not only a time to practice, but perhaps even more importantly to take stock and inventory of the entire roster.

“We will definitely have a lot of work to do when we get back,” said Walker, whose team is coming off a 7-6 season in which they advanced to the Class 4A state quarterfinals after rebounding from a 2-5 start. “The spring is a time for us to evaluate our athletes and fill in the gaps left by our seniors.”

But, Walker knows the playing field will be level when it comes to readiness compared to the competition.  

“We’re all in the same boat,” he said. “It’s going to come down to what coaching staff is most organized and what kind of shape our players are in when they return.”

For the Panthers in particular, the complex Slot-T offense they employ requires uncanny precision to properly execute, which means the fundamental building blocks must be firmly in place before they can be built upon and spring is a time to ingrain those foundational football skills, as well as determine which players are best-suited for what positions.

“Spring is a time to slow down and coach some of the basics that are very important to our success,” said Walker. “It’s also a great time to evaluate our athletes at their positions.”

The fact the Panthers will be senior-heavy – with 33 on the roster next season – doesn’t worry Walker as far as them not having proper time to lead the younger players, he said.

“There’s no doubt we will be counting on our big senior class to show the underclassman how to work and to lead by example,” he said. “But, I believe this senior class is up to the challenge.”

One crucial aspect currently missing is the hundreds of man-hours spent in the weight room, leaving Walker and his staff to adjust the Panthers’ usual lifting plan once they do return.

“We’ll have to lift for strength and gains during the season instead of maintaining,” he said. “But, once again, I believe this group will be up for the challenge. I don’t believe we can make up for lost time, but I know our athletes will out work more than anyone in the state when we return. I know our team will show up ready to work. Every time we talk on the phone or on zoom, they’re all bored and really want to get back with their team.” 

Walker added the dress rehearsal conducted during the spring is especially important in properly grooming the younger players, as well as getting an idea of how all the players stack up against each other.

“The evaluation process we do with our younger athletes – we were hoping to see lots of growth from a few key underclassmen and that didn’t happen,” he said. “Also, as of now, we’ll be behind or missing 7-on-7 and our lineman challenge. This is also a great time for us to evaluate our athletes and see what they are capable of doing against competition.”

But, perhaps the most important element now missing is the day-to-day interaction between the players and coaches, which forms the kinds of bonds that pay dividends later on, said Walker.

“I don’t believe many people understand how important the player-coach relationship is to a football team’s success,” he said. “It’s been difficult not seeing our athletes and getting to know them better – I know I really miss the handshakes and hugs.”

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