Woodson finds home in the net|[02/05/08]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Like a lot of great success stories, Bowen Woodson didn’t set out to end up where he did, camped between a pair of steel pipes, forced to pace the same 24 feet of ground like a caged animal until it was time to spring to action.

No, Woodson once roamed free on the soccer pitch. A former midfielder, he wandered the field in search of unwary opponents and picking up the occasional goal. He’d knock foes off the ball and set up teammates. Then, one summer afternoon, all of that changed. A shortage of players forced him into the keeper’s box. And there he’s remained ever since, still frustrating opponents and helping his team.

Woodson, Vicksburg High’s stellar junior goal keeper, has allowed just 10 goals in his last 10 games. Five of those were shutouts, including a 2-0 playoff-clinching victory over Ridgeland in the regular-season finale and a 1-0 win over Pontotoc in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs on Saturday.

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The run has helped Woodson and the Gators (10-13) reach the state semifinals for the third time in four seasons. They’ll play at three-time defending Class 4A champion Pearl tonight at 6.

“To me, he’s the best keeper in the state. There’s a few things he needs to work on, like punting, but as far as getting to shots there’s nobody better,” Vicksburg coach Jason Bennett said.

Woodson started out in the field, until that fateful summer scrimmage against Warren Central. Once Bennett saw Woodson’s potential in goal, he never let him out. Woodson worked on his skills, earning some playing time as a freshman. By his sophomore year, the job was his to keep.

Woodson’s quick reflexes, good speed and lanky 6-foot frame have allowed him to become one of the state’s top keepers. Against Ridgeland, he punched away a shot in the top right corner that few keepers could even get to. And other skills he’s learned over the last two seasons, like learning to take angles away from shooters and coming out of the goal to challenge opponents, have only added to his repertoire.

“As soon as I put him out there that first year, I knew he was going to be in goal for us and nobody was going to be close to it,” Bennett said. “A lot of our wins, he’s kept us in games. And a lot of our losses he’s kept us to where we have a chance.”

Teammate Brian Fitzgerald, a center midfielder, said having Woodson behind them allows the Gators to be more aggressive on defense, something else that has helped in their recent run of success.

“He gives me a little more confidence to push the defense up. Any long shots, I know he can take care of,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s huge. He stopped a lot of crucial goals that could’ve kept us out of the playoffs.”

In addition to soccer camps, Woodson has also honed his keeping skills on the baseball diamond. An infielder for Vicksburg’s baseball team, he said a lot of the same skills and drills — like learning to read hard-hit balls — translate well to both sports. In one baseball game last season, he showed how by making a pair of diving stabs on rockets hit down the third base line.

“A lot of stuff is like playing in the infield. We’ve had a lot of baseball players (playing soccer) that can pick it up real well,” Woodson said. “Third base and goalie are almost identical. It’s just all reflexes.”

As good as Woodson has been, tonight he’ll face perhaps his biggest challenge and an opponent that’s flummoxed him throughout his career. In three games against Pearl, Woodson has allowed seven goals and is winless. Two of the losses came this season, by identical 3-0 scores. Both times, Pearl scored in the first five minutes of the game.

“They get themselves in position. I think all six goals have been inside the 18,” Woodson said. “It’s not the fault of the defense, it’s just good passing.”

Vicksburg’s recent history with Pearl provides plenty of motivation for the Gators, even if a trip to the state championship game wasn’t on the line. The winner faces either Florence or West Jones on Saturday at noon at Clinton High. A Vicksburg victory would add fuel to what Woodson hopes is a growing rivalry, though.

“My first two years I was always ready for the Warren Central games, and Ridgeland now with (former VHS assistant Preston) Coach Nailor,” Woodson said, before adding with a smile, “Pearl is definitely heading in that direction.

“Right now it’s one-sided. Hopefully we can change that.”

If you go

6 p.m. – Vicksburg (10-13) at Pearl (19-7)

Admission: $6