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Panthers officially begin practice with many questions, challenges

By Scott Akanewich, Sports Editor at The Independent Liberty Hill, 09/10/20, 11:00AM CDT


Many questions face Liberty Hill head football coach Jeff Walker as he, his staff, and his players begin prepping for a season like no other.

However, on the morning of Sept. 7 – Labor Day, ironically – the Panthers were finally allowed out of their collective cage to get back to work with the first official day of practice.

Suddenly, all the concerns that lie directly in front of the Purple-and-Gold seemed to fade away – at least for the moment – as coaches and players were simply glad to be back out on the field, said Walker.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “But, we need to find out a whole lot more about our kids.”

According to UIL bylaws, the Panthers are allowed to don helmets for the first two days of practice, then can add shoulder pads for the next three days, before finally being cleared to be in full pads – which also means full contact for the first time this fall.

So, the occasion marked only the beginning of what will be uncharted territory for Walker and his squad, as they will have only a single scrimmage – at home against New Braunfels Canyon on Sept. 18, before kicking the ball off for real on Sept. 25 at Panther Stadium against Class 6A Killeen Ellison.

Certainly, a sense of urgency is needed with the shorter-than-usual run-up to the season-opener – along with the fact there are only two non-league games compared to the usual four contests before the Panthers are thrown into district play in Class 5A for the first time in school history with a home game against Crockett on Oct. 9.

That means there is much work to be done in a very short amount of time, said Walker.

“The next few weeks are going to be big for us,” he said.

Only adding to the intensity of the build-up is the fact Walker is currently missing seven players – all starters who are quarantined for 14 days due to COVID-19 restrictions – something that is simply a fact of life at the moment, said Walker.

“Unfortunately, I think this is something we’re going to have to continue to deal with,” he said. “But, we’re all in the same boat as far as other teams are concerned.”

Of the 14 players, only one was a confirmed COVID-19 case, with the others being quarantined due to contact tracing procedures.

As far as Xs and Os go, Walker said one side of the ball usually takes a bit more time to come together at this time of the year.

“Usually, the offense takes longer,” he said, after putting his players through the paces on the opening day. “I wasn’t happy with our offense today. I don’t know if it was because it was the first practice and it was at seven in the morning or what. But, we’ll get through it.”

Walker added his players have taken the new obstacles of the current conditions in stride as they gear up for the new season.

“Our kids are doing well,” he said. “But, we haven’t had a full team in weeks, so we’ve had to move people around and plug them in where we need them.”

An additional aspect of the Panthers’ progression that must be tracked is helmet-shoulder pads-full pads protocol, which must be implemented individually as opposed to the collective group.

For example, a player who begins practice on a later day than his teammates must still go through the five days of light contact before being cleared for full contact, which creates a conundrum for coaches.

“COVID has made that much more difficult,” said Walker. “But, the players themselves are good about knowing who can do what and when.”

For the second consecutive season, the annual Purple-and-White intra-squad scrimmage – scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 12 – has been canceled and replaced with a regular practice – something that was a necessary step in the way of caution with everything happening so fast after the late start, he said.

“We don’t want to rush things as much and get anybody hurt,” said Walker. “We have to be as safe as we possibly can under the conditions and do our part.”

Walker decided to require players to wear helmet visors during practice as a safety measure – despite no official mandate from the UIL to do so – but said that experiment wasn’t working out so well initially.

“I thought it would be a good idea, but we had some guys who were having trouble breathing and others whose visors fogged up,” he said. “So, we have some people who are already taking them off.”

But despite all the challenges, spirits up and down the Panthers ranks are high, said Walker.

“Attitudes are good right now,” he said. “We’re in the dog days of summer and it’s been a grind to get to this point without an immediate reward, but we’re ready to get the popcorn poppin’ and get going.”