Perspectives in disappointment

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By Scott Akanewich

When a soccer player makes a mistake on the field during a game, he or she must quickly compartmentalize and move on in order to prevent a single blunder from snowballing into an avalanche of errors.

Just keep going.

However, usually the opponent for Liberty Hill soccer players like junior defender Rhett Hofmann is a speedy winger or a powerful striker attempting to breach the Panthers’ defense.

Hofmann and his teammates were getting ready to face district rival Lampasas in their final regular-season game of the schedule when on March 19 the UIL suspended all activities due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, there was a brand new, altogether different kind of enemy to defend against.

Time.

Initially, activities were to resume as early as May 4, but after the current conditions became more and more untenable, it was clear the season would indeed not continue and the campaign was canceled on April 17, leaving Hofmann and the rest of the Panthers a team without a purpose and having an impact that affected both individuals as well as the collective group.

“It’s frustrating for us as a program because we had such a good chance of going all the way this year,” said Hofmann. “Especially in relation to how hard we’re going to have to fight in Class 5A next year to do as well as we’re used to. As an individual, it’s a really emotional situation since the boys we’re losing are really good guys and they’ve worked so hard to get us to where we are now. To see them not be able to finish out their senior season and not be able to go fight for them is really tough.”

Liberty Hill finished the shortened season with an overall record of 16-6 with a 10-1 district mark and at the time of the cancellation was riding the waves of an eight-game winning streak.

Junior striker Jaron Frye was the club’s leading scorer with 41 goals and 20 assists, including 10 multi-goal games and eight hat tricks with three four-goal games and a five-goal outburst in a 7-2 away victory against Lampasas on Feb. 18.

But, now everything has ground to an agonizing halt, which has left Hofmann exasperated, although he’s also confident he’ll be back on the pitch at some point soon.

“It’s been pretty frustrating — not going to lie, but there will inevitably be an end to it all and we’ll see some sort of normalcy, so I’m not too stressed,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges for soccer players during a down period is not only to maintain proper fitness levels, but to keep one’s ball skills sharp without teammates to train with and Hofmann has done his best to ensure that, employing his own training regimen on the same ground Liberty Hill Youth Soccer Association calls home.

“I’ve been going to the (CR) 200 fields to work on shots and been doing touch, agility and weight training at home,” said Hofmann. “The obligatory runs as often as I can are keeping my endurance up, but in all honesty I haven’t created a schedule for running like I should.”

Speaking of the clock, Hofmann said although it’s challenging to remain academically on point during this time, as well as staying physically fit, it’s certainly possible with enough effort.

“Time management in both working out and staying on top of schoolwork can be a chore, but I’ve found as long as I stay on top of it and stay proactive, it’s completely doable and I can still find time for the things I want to do,” he said. 

Shannon Hofmann has an entirely different perspective of what’s currently taking place.

Along with being the mother of Rhett and former Lady Panther soccer player Emma Jane Hofmann, she has been up-close-and-personal with the Liberty Hill soccer program from its inception, witnessing events through the lens of a camera on the sidelines.

As one who is not only parent and photographer, but also the president of the booster club for the boys’ team, Shannon is much more involved than your average soccer mom, which certainly leaves an even bigger void in her everyday life, as she has had a child in the program every year since its inception in the 2013-14 season.

Shannon fully realizes the gravity of the current situation and the hardships – both tangible and psychological – the pandemic has had, but remains philosophic and positive.

“As far as how I’ve gone about dealing with the entire situation, it’s been one day at a time basically,” she said. “I go through a range of emotions daily — from sadness and frustration about all the things that should’ve been, worry over the people who have been affected negatively and then joy and peace in the blessings I can see which wouldn’t have happened otherwise – such as extra family time and opportunities to help others when we’re usually too busy to do so.”

Shannon has tried to remain as involved as possible despite the current restrictions and in doing so is at least somewhat filling the enormous void she finds, with some help from her stock-and-trade, she said.

“In regard to dealing with this situation as it relates to my level of involvement in my children’s sports, I’ve tried to stay engaged with our soccer coaches and families by touching base occasionally,” said Shannon. “While some of our teammates have lived here for years and have solid friendships and family close by, others are fairly new to the community and may not have support close by. Therefore, we need to be that family. I’m also working on some photo projects, which keep me smiling as I relive the games the kids did get to play.”

Shannon’s multiple Purple-and-Gold hats within the Panthers soccer program is cause for an extra dose of sorrow as she can both empathize and sympathize with everyone affected.

“I’ve been privileged to be the on-field photographer as well as the parent of a team member on both the boys’ and girls’ teams since our inaugural high school soccer season here in Liberty Hill,” she said. “I get to reach out and touch the ‘thrill of victory and the agony of defeat’ on the sidelines with these young men and women – many of whom I’ve known 10 years or more. I know what both of these teams expected out of themselves this season and they’re capable of achieving those goals. I know the battles they’ve fought together and I know what should’ve been for both of them, so it’s double disappointment for sure.”

Aside from the game itself, there is also a cornucopia of sights and sounds, which usually provide the senses with ample stimulation, now missing, said Shannon.

“I miss the hugs and the smiles, I miss the competition and capturing moments in space and time with the camera,” she said. “I miss hearing hilarious banter and laughter between teammates, I miss the parents. I even miss the freezing rain and the late-night drives. But, most of all I miss their time together.”

Shannon added now that the current campaign has gone by the wayside, she believes the players are ready to accept the fate they’ve been dealt and move forward with an eye on whatever the future brings – although she has particular admiration for those who don’t have a next season to look forward to.

“From what I can tell, our soccer players are disappointed, but they aren’t dwelling on this moment,” she said. “They’ve already turned their enthusiasm toward next year as we were having to adjust to a new normal anyway, moving from Class 4A to 5A. As far as our seniors, it’s really remarkable the positive attitudes I’ve seen. Even when they express their sadness and disappointment, they show wisdom and maturity. They know all the ways they’ve been shorted, but they’ve turned their eyes to the future and the blessings each day brings. They will have a story completely unique to anyone else in their generation.”

Concerning what the future may or may not hold on the other side of the pandemic, Shannon isn’t dwelling on speculation.

“I try not to spend too much time wondering about it,” she said. “I think eventually our sports will get back to something that resembles what we’re used to as will most everything else. Humanity in general is pretty resourceful and creative and we’ve been through pandemics before and sports have survived.  We need that outlet.”

Although it’s cliché to say the outbreak has caused many to look inward and examine the priorities society tends to put on pursuits such as sports, Shannon said all this has done is reinforce what she already knew.

“I wouldn’t say this has changed my perspective on the importance we put on sports as a society. I think we can all agree there are some unhealthy dynamics inherent in the system,” she said. “However, the current situation certainly highlights for me the positive aspects of our high school sports in particular. For example, being separated from caring, dynamic mentors such as our LHHS soccer coaches and our beloved trainer, Mrs. (Melissa) Harrington is gut-wrenching. Not to mention the camaraderie of teammates and the physical and emotional stress relief of the workouts and games. Of course, any true competitor is going to miss the game they’re passionate about. There are intangible qualities of being a member of a team which are irreplaceable. Take those things away and you’re going to have some really sad athletes and parents.”

According to Rhett, technology has played a critical role in helping him and his teammates remain as close as possible during this no-contact period – not only for members of the squad who will return next season, but those who will move on, as well.

“The team is almost constantly in contact. We have group chats that keep us all updated in what’s going on and we keep our friendships going with a continuous stream of memes and roasts,” said Rhett. “We obviously care about our chemistry for next year and we want to be as active in the lives of the seniors we’re losing as we can. I can genuinely say I wouldn’t be the player I am if it weren’t for those guys, so I want to keep those relationships healthy and beneficial for us all.” 

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