“I know they lost some players from last year,” said Panther coach Gus Prieto. “I wasn’t sure we could beat them, but I knew we needed to play strong and had to play together because they are always strong.”
The Redskins put together their best season a year ago. After a 2-5 start, Liberal strung together 14 consecutive wins en route to its first Class 5A state championship. Much of that squad, however, graduated in May.
“We’re only returning three starters from last year’s championship team, so we have a very young team and a new defense,” Navarro said. “Obviously, it showed today. We had a lot of mistakes and a lack of communication.”
Great Bend returns plenty of experience. After a 15-4 season, including an 11-game win streak, the Panthers bring back six starters and 10 seniors. With that experience, Great Bend (1-0) was able to exploit that young defense right out of the gate. Just 40 seconds into the game, Panther junior forward Michael Prieto made Redskin keeper Jose Alonso come off his line for a save.
The Panthers continued to threaten in the middle of the field, but twice offensive chances were negated with offside calls.
“We try to practice the offsides a lot, but sometimes they play really well,” said Michael Prieto. “We try to play as close as we can to them without getting caught offside.”
Liberal (0-1) struggled offensively, needing nearly 30 minutes to put its first shot on goal. Prieto attributed his team’s condition to the solid defensive performance that allowed just two shots on goal all day.
“We are in shape,” said the coach. “In my five years at the high school, we usual practice for two hours. Now, we’re at three or three-and-a-half. We’re working really hard and doing a lot of different stuff this season.”
Tied 0-0 at the half, sloppy play from Great Bend nearly proved to be costly. Redskin sophomore was able to take the ball away and put a shot into the side-netting just 20 seconds into the half. That would be the only serious crack at goal until Liberal forced an Edgar Garcia save in the final five minutes of play.
The Panthers, on the other hand, would have plenty of chances. With 36 minutes to play, Ivan Galindo stole the ball and found Prieto in the box, but a defender kept the ball out of the net. Liberal was not so lucky three minutes later when Prieto’s cross through the box was mishandled by Alonso. The ball bounced right to Panther senior Alex Urias, who buried it for a 1-0 lead with 33:22 to play.
Just two minutes later, another offensive chance resulted in Prieto being fouled in the box. Senior Mario Espino stepped up to take the penalty kick, finding space in the bottom right corner for the 2-0 advantage.
Midway through the half, newcomer Joaquin Garcia entered the game for Great Bend. The junior dropped several passes to teammates, resulting in three more shots on goal. The Panthers finished with 12 shots in the second half, most of which came in the final 20 minutes of play.
Great Bend just missed twice more hitting the crossbar once and the upright once. Urias picked up the final goal of the game with 7:17 to play when Alonso ventured far off his line but could not come up with the ball.
The loss puts Liberal in familiar territory after its start last season. Navarro knows there is plenty of season left to improve.
“It’s just the beginning of the season,” she said. “We learned that last year – we started with five losses. It’s not always how you start the season, it’s how you finish. It’s a good to come out here and play a great team because it gives us a good gauge as to what we need to do and where we’re at.”