Despite the loss of all-time goals scorer Garrett Bosley to graduation, the Benton Panthers soccer team had high expectations going into the 2020 spring season. Though the Panthers started the year 0-3, after going 45-12-3 the previous three seasons including a semifinals appearance in 2018, those losses came against excellent competition with a 1-0 loss to Catholic to open the season, a 2-0 loss to 5A defending champion Russellville and a 3-0 loss to rival Bryant Hornets, last year’s 6A state runner-up. 

The Panthers played the Hornets on Tuesday, March 10, and were set to play the Bauxite Miners that Friday before the Arkansas Activities Association suspended play in all sports that Thursday, March 12, due to the coronavirus COVID-19. 

“I was excited to see what we could do because we opened up with three extremely tough opponents,” Benton Coach Bobby Winn said. “Our kids held in there the entire time. I talked to Bryant’s coach (Rick Friday) after the game and he said, ‘Man, y’all are scrappy. Y’all were one or two touches away from scoring.’ They had two really good goals and if you take that away it’s a one-goal ballgame.”

ZACH HARDISTER

Benton senior Zach Hardister, 7, heads a ball in a match last season. Only three games into the 2020 spring season, Hardister and the Panthers’ year is over due to COVID-19, with the Arkansas Activities Association officially canceling all spring sports for 2020. 

The initial suspension to the season was until March 30, which was then extended to April 17 with the rise of COVID cases throughout the country and the state. But, as those cases continued to rise (over 1,100 with 21 deaths in Arkansas and over 460,000 with over 16,000 in USA), Gov. Asa Hutchinson canceled the rest of the school year this past Monday, with classes to be finished online, and the AAA extended the “dead period” to May 30, ultimately canceling all spring season sports. 

“It’s kind of out of our hands,” Winn said. “When the governor says you have to do something, we’re going to go along with it. I think it’s always good to take precaution for any kid, any student, to ensure their safety. This is obviously a serious issue. We’ve had multiple cases, we’re up over 1,000 now. We’re close to 20 people dying (as of Thursday morning). It’s serious enough we don’t want to take a risk and have any of our kids infected, sick long-term.” 

And before the rest of the school season was canceled early this week, Winn kept in contact with his team in hopes of the season resuming.

“I’m in contact,” he said. “We have Google Classroom set up and talk to them. I text every once in awhile for just keeping them upbeat about things, checking on them. Leading up until a week ago before the schools were actually canceled, I was posting workouts and staying in contact semi-daily about what they can be doing on their own at home in case we did get to come back.”

Winn is still tentatively holding on for a chance to get some soccer in possibly after the dead period is over, however unlikely it may be with the state championship games scheduled for the May 22 weekend in Fayetteville. 

“I told them we need to be prepared to turn their stuff in,” Winn told his team. “That’s the weirdest part right now, AAA has not officially canceled spring sports. That’s the weirdest thing. There’s a dead period through (May) 30. Common sense dictates that our spring season is over (AAA officially canceled it late Thursday), but I don’t want to be definite and say hey, ‘They’re going to allow us to play in June this year and it’s our time to go.’”

But with nothing set in stone and the season ultimately canceled, Benton will say goodbye to three seniors - Jose Simon, Zach Hardister and Alan Vargas.  

“I’ve texted them trying to keep them upbeat about things,” Winn said of his seniors. “I told them, ‘Hey, y’all did great.’ I told them how much I appreciated them being leaders through the short offseason we had leading into the season and I was proud of what they’ve done for four years. They’ve accomplished a lot. They’ve been on three very successful teams. 

“Zach Hardister had started every game, maybe except for two or three, his entire career. He’s had a very accomplished career, especially defensively. 

“Alan Vargas, because of injuries, I think he played more as a 10th-grader than he did an 11th-grader. That was the year we went to the semifinals. They’ve excepted their roles throughout the years.”

With this season seemingly done, the Panthers will look to next year, which will feature 11 seniors-to-be, not to mention a talented group of juniors-to-be.  

“We should be highly competitive next year,” Winn said. “We’ll have a good group of seniors. We’ll have five seniors very active in playing time this year, which will excel them for next year. We’ll also have six juniors (see a lot of playing time). We’re very deep in the 10th-grade class that will be juniors. It’s going to be a good year because we’ll have a good mixture of seniors and juniors, and probably a sophomore or two I could see stepping up seeing some playing time.”

And with no face-to-face contact with his team in almost a month, Winn, who is also the defensive coordinator for the Panther football team, is just ready to get out on the field again, regardless of sport.  

“It’ll be exciting to just get out and playing,” he said. “That’s what our kids need, whenever we’re allowed to play, whether it be football, baseball, basketball, whatever goes first. I think that first game for anybody is going to be an all-out war. Everybody is going to be hungry.” 

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