Panthers clinch district soccer title
By Scott Akanewich
Look, ma, no hands!
Only problem for Salado was that clearly wasn’t the case inside the first minute of play during its visit to Panther Stadium on Friday evening for its district soccer game against Liberty Hill.
An Eagles defender was deemed to have handled the ball inside the area and after the Panthers’ Jaron Frye had placed the ball down on the penalty spot and coolly slotted home his 40th goal of the season, the Purple-and-Gold had all but clinched the district championship, as they would go on to defeat Salado by a score of 7-0.
Liberty Hill had entered the match with a one-game lead over the Eagles, but after defeating them for the second time this season, now have a two-game advantage with two games left and hold the tiebreaker over their nearest rivals.
Indeed, the Panthers closed this one out early with the 1st minute penalty and another which was awarded in the 12th after a Liberty Hill player was brought down in the box.
Hayden Ersham sent his spot kick past the Salado keeper and just like that, it was quickly 2-0 in favor of the hosts.
However, it was the opener which was the back-breaker for the visitors, said Liberty Hill head Coach Wayne Munger.
“To give up the first goal like that was a tough one to overcome,” he said. “But, for us, we didn’t gain or lose any confidence – we just kept playing our game.”
Salado tested the Panthers’ defense for the first time in the 14th minute, but a cross into the area was headed wide of the Liberty Hill net.
Five minutes later in the 19th, Frye picked up a loose ball neat the center circle and proceeded to weave his way past first a Salado defender at full speed and then the goalkeeper before tapping home his second of the game for a 3-0 lead. Fellow striker Kegan Taggart had made a lung-busting run down the right side along with Frye, which opened up the defense and kept them at bay long enough for the Panthers’ leading scorer to work his considerable magic on the ball before scoring.
Less than 60 seconds later, it was Taggart who was the beneficiary of a pinpoint pass from Garrison Clopton and scored his 13th of the season for a 4-0 lead.
Only a minute after that, Frye once again got the ball near midfield and sprinted straight through four Eagles defenders, only to lay it off to Gerald Shoetan, who was initially denied by the keeper, but got a second bite at the cherry and found the back of the net after getting his own rebound.
After the floodgates had finally closed, it was all but game over for the visitors with still over a half to play after having conceded three goals in two minutes.
However, the Panthers remained hungry for more.
In the 47th minute, wing back Zach Ellis sent an ambitious attempt at goal from all the way out on the right sideline, which arced high in the air before bouncing off the crossbar and right down to Frye, who had a go at the spectacular himself with an overhead kick which failed to find the target.
Moments later, Ersham flew one over the bar from distance before Clopton hammered a low, hard shot on frame which was saved by the goalkeeper right on the stroke of halftime.
But, despite the commanding lead at the break, the Panthers continued their all-out assault on the Salado goal once the contest resumed.
Frye had both a header saved and another effort cannon off the post inside 60 seconds in the 47th minute and one felt it was only a matter time before the home club once again cashed in on their relentlessness and it was junior center back and team captain Rhett Hofmann who typified the ruthless effort of he and his teammates.
Hofmann crashed the Salado net in pursuit of a loose ball and sent a short-range shot on goal only for it to pinball off a couple different sets of legs before finding the ball at his feet once again at which point he bundled it over the line for his first goal of the season and a 6-0 lead.
In the 60th minute, Ellis followed up his bodacious first-half effort with another range-finder – this one from wide out on the left wing, which also once again caromed off the crossbar.
The Panthers again struck the woodwork in the 75th minute when senior defender and captain Gabe Hernandez ventured forward into the attack and smashed a shot off the bar.
After blasting four shots against the frame over the course of the game, it was a fitting end when Shoetan scored his second of the evening and sixth of the season to close out the scoring in the 79th minute for a 7-0 lead, which was how the contest ended.
Frye, Shoetan, Taggart and Greg Miller picked up assists on a night when there was no doubt as to which team was the best in the district, as the Panthers secured their third consecutive title.
So, job done for Munger and his squad as they look forward to the playoffs.
“I’ve been really happy during district,” said Munger. “We’ve been able to close out games.”
Liberty Hill 5, Burnet 0
On March 10, the Panthers defeated Burnet by a score of 5-0 in their final regular season road game of the year, scoring five first-half goals on the way to victory.
Liberty Hill (16-6, 10-1) will next host Johnson on March 13 and Lampasas on March 17 to close the regular season.