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Sifuentes’ speed an advantage for Panthers

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Photographs by Graham Thomas

Siloam Springs senior midfielder Francisco Sifuentes (14) crosses the ball against Little Rock Hall in the Class 6A state semiÿnals on Saturday at Panther Stadium.

SILOAM SPRINGS — Francisco Sifuentes finally has some touch to go with his blazing speed.

Sifuentes, a senior midfielder for Siloam Springs, has always been fast, but what’s kept him off the soccer field for Siloam Springs the bulk of his first three seasons has been his ability to handle the ball at his feet.

“I guess I didn’t have good ball control,” said Sifuentes. “So it was hard for me to control the ball running fast.”

Sifuentes is still relatively new to soccer, which is unusual with his Hispanic heritage.

Sifuentes said he didn’t start playing until eighth grade and that was only because all his friends signed up to play.

“I guess my parents just never got me into teams or anything,” he said. “I didn’t really like soccer until eighth grade year.”

Even with his inexperience, the raw talent was visible. Sifuentes was good enough to make the Panthers’ varsity roster during his freshman season in 2014.

But his lack of touch caught up with him and he was demoted back to the junior varsity as a sophomore in 2015. Sifuentes returned to the varsity in 2016 but didn’t start for the Panthers, who wound up winning the state championship with a 2-1 win against Russellville.

“He didn’t say anything to us last year, but I could tell that he was frustrated that he didn’t play as much as he’d like to,” said Siloam Springs coach Brent Crenshaw.

Sifuentes wasn’t a starter for the Panthers to start his senior year, “but kept getting better and better,” Crenshaw said. He learned how to soften that first touch.

Now the midfielder is one of Siloam Springs’ best offensive options as the Panthers (20-5-1) try to win their second straight state title at 10 a.m. on Friday against Mountain Home in the Class 6A state finals.

Sifuentes plays the right midfielder position and has six goals, which is tied for third on the team with senior Austin Shull and junior Jack Bos. He’s scored three of his goals in the Panthers’ last eight games. He also has two assists.

“Overall from preseason in January to where we are now, he’s figured out so much,” Crenshaw said. “He’s figured out how to use his speed, because that is such a weapon for him every time out there.”

Crenshaw said the Panthers want to utilize Sifuentes’ speed. They’ll often play the ball long and ask him to run down and get it.

His speed paid off in a 3-2 win against Benton in the semifinals of the 6A-West Conference Tournament when he scored a late goal that proved to be the game-winner.

“That’s just something you can’t coach,” Crenshaw said of Sifuentes’ speed. “I mean there are a few things you can do in the offseason to help your speed. But you either have it or you don’t, and he has it. So we want to use him on the flanks anytime we get a chance to because he can outrun most players.”

Assistant coach Luke Shoemaker said Sifuentes has improved one area of his game each season and has always worked hard. But Shoemaker, like Crenshaw, comes back to what makes Sifuentes unique.

“He is easily the fastest player I have ever coached and that includes football,” Shoemaker said. “You can’t coach that kind of speed, he’s just special.”

Crenshaw said there haven’t been any official tries to clock how fast Sifuentes is.

“I’d be curious to see what he runs,” Crenshaw said. “He’s our fastest kid on the field.”

Shull, a team captain, said Sifuentes also does a good job of keeping his teammates happy.

“Franny, he’s kind of a jokester,” Shull said. “He always keeps the team laughing. He always keeps us uplifted. He’s honestly one of the hardest workers on the team. There’s a few I would say work really hard, but Franny even after running 100-yard sprints, he’s still going to get back and defend, and that’s not something you see from every player.”

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