Teams gear up for a unique season


By Scott Akanewich

On the surface, it may seem like any other mid-August around the main field house at Liberty Hill High School as fall sports teams have begun workouts in anticipation of the resumption of competition.

However, just the starting dates alone – set by the UIL – are enough to give one pause when considering exactly how this new school year – and sports season – is going to play out.

Five months have passed since all official high school competition across Texas was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Class 4A and below schools were permitted to begin practice on Aug. 3, which was when Liberty Hill normally would’ve started getting ready for the upcoming schedule.

But, due to the Panthers’ jump up to Class 5A for the new school year, the green light was further delayed, providing an instant price to pay for being included with the big boys and girls in the top two classifications.

So, instead of beginning of time, the Purple-and-Gold volleyball and football squads have been forced to wait another month to get going, as those sports will begin competing on Sept. 14 and Sept. 24, respectively.

Not the case for the Panthers cross country and tennis teams, which have already been working out ahead of the first meets and matches of the season on Sept. 7.

According to new Liberty Hill head tennis coach Sherry Rhoden, her sport is providing exactly what the doctor ordered for her young athletes – literally and figuratively.

“Tennis has been recommended by the CDC since day one of this pandemic,” said Rhoden. “It’s considered level 2 on the risk scale. As far as sports go, we’re very grateful for our sport, especially in times like this. In fact, most of our players continued playing tennis through drills, tournaments and small practices all summer long. Now that we’re back on campus, we’re checking individual temperatures and asking the COVID questions before we begin practice each day. When we’re grouped together for instruction, we’re social distancing and wearing our masks.”

Health guidelines aside, both players and coaches are pleased to simply be back at their chosen craft, said Rhoden.

“The players seem so happy to be back together on the courts – their court time is filling their mental, physical and social needs,” she said. “Both the ladies’ and men’s teams have been working hard and staying positive in the heat. Everyone seems very eager to learn and improve. As coaches, we’re ecstatic to see our players and be back on these beautiful, purple courts.”

Head cross country coach Kim Holt and her squad have been working out since July 27 and are slowly getting up to speed with not only their times, but the new safety protocols, she said.

“At the moment, the kids are wearing masks to practice daily. We check their temperature, ask them the health questions and record the data and we also give them hand sanitizer,” said Holt. “After we check them in, they take their masks off to practice. When we use the weight room, we’re sanitizing the equipment after use and the kids are using hand sanitizer. After practice, they put their masks back on.”

Of course, maintaining proper distance is also of the utmost importance, said Holt.

“We also tell them daily to make sure to social distance,” she said. “We’re only allowed to have 50 percent in the locker rooms at the moment, so we have to make sure to limit the kids that go in. We haven’t let the kids use the showers yet, but when school starts we’ll have guidelines on that hopefully.  So, we’re able to get our workouts done – we just have to work with the guidelines.”

Lady Panthers head volleyball coach Gretchen Peterson said being back together allows her and her team to once again renew the camaraderie, which provides one of the most rewarding aspects of athletics – and one that also helps ease the constraints of the current conditions.

“Everyone was so ready to get back to some sort of normalcy – the unknown of would we or wouldn’t we have a season was the worst of it – not knowing was very wearing,” she said. “Spirits are up and good, we have a plan, we have a vision, we know we have to roll with it. Things will change, but we’re going to move forward and find the blessings in all the mess of it and make it nice. It’s so good to be back with our teams and kids – not because of the practices or games necessarily, but because of the friendships, bonds and relationships – when you have those in place, it makes everything else a lot easier to take in.”

As always, Peterson had the knack for putting a positive spin on the proceedings while waxing philosophic with a bit of humor mixed in.

“What we’re doing requires more planning and monitoring and you organize things differently, but you make it work,” she said. “Honestly, if they told me I had to coach wearing a full hazmat suit standing on my head, I would do it with a smile, as long as we’re moving forward and our kids are getting to play. As for the kids, they get it and they want this, so you do what you have to do – complaining isn’t going to do any good, so why waste that energy?”

Liberty Hill athletic director and head football coach Jeff Walker has provided his players with proper perspective regarding the new normal they find themselves in.

“It’s definitely challenging, but our student-athletes are doing a great job of following the guidelines in place,” he said. “I remind the kids daily we’re a phone call away from the season being possibly canceled, so we need to make every day we get count.”

With that being said, intensity must remain tempered – for now, anyway.

“At the moment, we get a chance to slow down and teach some specifics that will help moving forward, but once the season starts, it’s fast and furious,” said Walker. “But, we’ve done a great job of taking one day at a time. We don’t worry about things out of our control and we’re focused on getting our team prepared to play.”

Rhoden added to the sentiment of living in the moment and appreciating the chance to get back at the business of practicing and playing the game they love.

“We’re taking each day one day at a time and we recognize each day is a gift for all of us to enjoy,” she said. “The schedule may change, but our love for the game will not be affected. Tennis players have been extremely blessed during this pandemic and I speak for many when I say we’re grateful for this lifelong game that’s outside in the fresh air. What a luxury to be able to hit these yellow, fuzzy balls.”

Peterson echoed the emotions of her coaching colleagues when it came to embracing opportunity and taking absolutely nothing for granted in the current climate.

“I think there are lessons to be learned in all of this and we have all learned there are no guarantees and things can go as quickly as they got here, so enjoy and embrace what you have when you have it,” she said. “We all need to use more common sense and not just assume when it comes to our health, but also we can’t live without fully living. So we make the most of everything, make sounder decisions and live our lives in the moment we’re in. As for volleyball, everyone in the state is in the same boat – some of us better, but ultimately it’s the same situation and challenges – it’s about figuring out how to make it work and getting things done – making adjustments and moving forward.”