Bulldogs’ soccer season officially opens this week

Bulldogs’ soccer season officially opens this week

It’s football season again! No, not that kind of football. The high school soccer season is set to officially open this week for the Greenwood Bulldogs and Head Coach Tyler Woods. The coach is starting his sixth season at the helm of the Bulldogs, including the lost Covid season of 2020, and has posted a record of 36-36-9 at Greenwood. The Bulldogs finished 6-7-1 in 5A West conference play last spring, just missing out on the 2023 playoffs. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Bulldogs lost their final match of the season at Greenbrier, 2-0, missing the postseason as a result.

“It was a very tough way to end the season,” said Coach Woods last May. “If we had won, we were the clear three seed.” The match was scoreless at halftime before the Panthers took charge with two second half goals. Still, Woods was pleased with his team’s efforts, despite missing the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year, excluding 2020 due to the pandemic. Woods and his players are highly motivated to break that cycle this spring.

Woods lost three critical seniors off his 2023 roster – Ben Pschier, Ralph Meeker, and Steven Duran – but has seven seniors leading the charge this season. They are Brandon Coston, Carson Hobbs, Peyton Presson, Bodey Steinfeldt, Tucker Wooten, Kaleb Marsico, and Alex Pittman, all of them starters or major contributors.

That kind of senior leadership is one of the most positive signs offering hope this season for Woods and his Bulldogs in the 5A West, the toughest soccer league in the state across all classifications. The 5A classification has been dominated by teams from the West for the past several years with numerous state titles won, mostly by Siloam Springs, Russellville, and now Van Buren. That’s left the rest of the league scrambling for a single playoff spot each spring, usually fourth place, and it will likely be the same way this season.

Asked about his team’s strengths heading into the 2024 campaign, Coach Woods listed a solid senior class, overall experience, and an elite goalkeeper. In addition to the seven seniors, add a pair of juniors, a sophomore, and a talented freshman to round out the possible starting lineup. They are juniors David Coggin and Corbin Lamb, tenth-grader Christian Campbell, and ninth-grader Landon Franklin. Protecting the net again this year for the Bulldogs will be senior Brandon Coston, whom Woods called “one of the best goalkeepers in the state.”

Of course, as in every season for all teams, overall health and potential injuries will play a big role in the Bulldogs’ chances of cracking the playoffs in 2024. Woods is also concerned about youth and inexperience among his front-line offensive players, freshman forward Landon Franklin and junior forward Hudson Meeker. Above all else, the coach says the key to his team’s success this season will be to win the winnable games against the other league teams vying for that fourth playoff spot.

He expects defending state champion Russellville to be at the top of the league standings once again, along with Van Buren, Greenbrier, and Siloam Springs, in that order, with Russellville and Van Buren also atop the overall 5A standings with Greenbrier cracking the top ten. Other 5A teams to watch statewide this season include Hot Springs Lakeside, Lake Hamilton, Pulaski Academy, Valley View, Hot Springs, Searcy, and Little Rock Christian, according to Woods.

But before the Bulldogs can worry about facing any of other those teams in the postseason, they first must get there, and that’s been the toughest challenge since Woods arrived at Greenwood from Beebe in 2019. As in any successful season, several things will have to go right for the Bulldogs to post a winning conference record and earn a state tournament bid, but Coach Woods is hopeful that his players have the potential to do just that in 2024.

“We’re excited to get the season started,” said Woods. “We return a lot of guys with experience, so that should help. Unfortunately, we play in the toughest conference in the state, so we must play well if we want to get a shot at the playoffs. Our key players will be our goalkeeper, Brandon Coston, our center midfielder, Tucker Wooten, and our center back, Bodey Steinfeldt. We [also] have a couple freshmen that will make a difference this year in Landon Franklin and Reid Pittman. They give us some depth we haven’t had in the past, [but] we’ll need them to grow up quickly.”

Woods has offered a prospective lineup for this week’s season opener based on several returning starters from last spring and his large group of seasoned veterans, starting with Brandon Coston at keeper, who has earned both all-conference and all-state honors in his career. The GHS back line includes defenders Carson Hobbs, Alex Pittman, Bodey Steinfeldt, and Kaleb Marsico. Steinfeldt was also an all-conference selection in 2023. The midfielders will likely include Christian Campbell, Tucker Wooten, David Coggin, and Corbin Lamb. Out front will be Landon Franklin and Hudson Meeker. Senior Peyton Presson, who joins the team this week after basketball ended, is also a prime candidate to start or be a key contributor off the bench, according to Woods.

“We’re really fortunate this year to have six seniors in our starting lineup,” said the coach, “and that doesn’t include Peyton Presson. He could come in and take one of those starting spots. But who knows?” Woods admitted that the starting lineup remains a work-in-progress and could change early in the season.

“Bodey Steinfeldt has been hurt ever since football season,” he continued. “He’s practicing with us and is about 85 or 90%. But if he were healthy today, I would probably start him at center back [on defense]. If he’s not [available], I’ll have to plug in [junior] Braycen Austin at right back and Kaleb Marsico at center back.” Woods had hoped to move Steinfeldt to a forward position this season, but his injury and lack of practice time, plus the emergence of a talented freshman on the front line may have changed that plan.

The coach talked about his potential starters, beginning with returning senior and all-state and all-conference performer Brandon Coston at goalkeeper. “We’re very lucky to have Brandon. He’s been awesome. He’s the anchor to our defense. He’s always been good about shot blocking, and he’s gotten better at communicating and organizing guys. He’s a natural and has done a really good job. I really think he is the best goalkeeper in Arkansas.

“Carson Hobbs is at left back,” the coach continued. “He started last season in his first year ever playing soccer. He’s done awesome. I’m very proud of him. He’s gotten better with his footwork. He’s always had speed and aggressiveness, and that’s why he became a starter last year. When you have guys that are athletic it’s easy to find them a spot on the field. He’s really embraced soccer.

“Alex Pittman will be a three-year starter,” said Woods.  “He’s a valuable asset to our defense. He turned into a really good player between his freshman and sophomore years. He fell in love with the sport and put on 20 pounds of muscle and didn’t lose an ounce of speed. He’s a solid rock of a person and he’s fast and does a good job defensively, staying in front of people and clearing balls. We’re going to lean on him big time this year.”

With Bodey Steinfeldt’s status still somewhat in doubt, Kaleb Marsico could slot in at center back on defense, said the coach of the move-in from Texas. “We’re really glad to have Kaleb. He’s a good addition to our defense. He’s got good touch. You can tell he’s played soccer for a while. He’s learning to be more physical and how we do things in our system. But he’s still got some things to learn. If Bodey is healthy I’ll push Kaleb out to right back. If Bodey is not healthy, Kaleb will play center back and I will sub in [junior] Braycen Austin at right back. He could see a lot of playing time and so could Peyton Presson at that right back or outside back position. Braycen has great instincts for the ball and he’s smart. He needs to keep improving his touch but he works hard every day. We’re going to depend on him. He’s going to be used a lot.” Woods says that all three players – Marsico, Austin, and Presson – will see a lot of playing time this season.

Presson is a three-sport athlete (football, basketball, soccer) who has signed a letter of intent to play college football after three years as a receiver for the Bulldogs, though his athletic career has been marred somewhat by injuries. This will be Presson’s first week out for soccer practice since basketball season ended for the varsity boys last Friday, so he will need some time to get reacquainted with the sport.

“I’m really happy he’s going to be playing with us this year,” said the coach of Presson. “He’s played for two years and been a starter for most of that time. He’ll do anything you ask him to do. He’ll run through a brick wall and tries to do whatever he’s asked to do and help the team win. We’re lucky to have him. We have a backfield heavy with seniors. We better get some other kids some reps because we’re going to be starting all over next year.”

Moving on, Woods mentioned another senior, Tucker Wooten, as a starter this season. “He’ll play center-mid for us, and he’s started the last two seasons. He bloomed between his sophomore and junior seasons. He grew about a foot and got in the weight room. He loves soccer and has great touch. The stronger he’s gotten the faster he’s gotten. He can hold the ball even under pressure when he’s got defenders on him. He can dribble out of pressure and find an outlet really easy. He’s going to be big for us if he can stay healthy.

“David Coggin is a really important player for us this year,” the coach continued. “He started as a freshman and sophomore and has plenty of experience. He plays club soccer on a travel team and he’s one of the most competitive people on our team. He hates to lose. He’s going to win or die trying. He’s very savvy and clever with the ball. We’re going to need big things out of him. He’s going to step up into a playmaking role this year. He’ll play center-mid some and outside-mid some. Whatever can help us the most.”

Sophomore Christian Campbell started as a mid-fielder as a freshman last year, said the coach. “In some games he showed flashes of brilliance, but in other games he looked like a freshman. We’re trying to get him to be more consistent this year. He’s got all the tools to be a good soccer player. He knows what to do with the ball, he just needs to have confidence in himself. He’s super fast and he’s in love with soccer and the weight room. He’s growing and getting bigger and stronger.

“Another mid-fielder who started a couple games last year when we had some injuries is Corbin Lamb. He’s a junior this year and he’s worked his tail off. Corbin has always had touch and vision and knows what to do with the ball, but he didn’t have the speed and athleticism to go with it until just recently. I think the weight room has helped him, and just getting older and stronger and faster. We scrimmaged not long ago, and I was really impressed with Corbin. He didn’t panic under pressure and knew exactly where to go with the ball. All our midfielders know what to do and how to get there. I love our mid-field this year. They’re smart guys.”

Another junior starter is Hudson Meeker, who Woods fondly calls “a bull in a China shop.” Also a football player, Meeker never quits. “Hudson never stops,” said his coach. “He’s big and strong and physical and can finish with both feet. He’s a competitor and hates to lose. He likes to talk a little trash and I like to hear it. It makes our guys a little more competitive and brings some energy. He’ll score some goals for us this year just because of his hustle.”

The final piece of the starting puzzle for the Bulldogs will be freshman forward Landon Franklin. “He’s played youth soccer and done really well, so he’s come to us not playing like a freshman. He’s playing like a junior or senior. Landon can finish with his right foot. He’s got a little bit of speed and he doesn’t mind mixing it up with bigger, older kids. He kicked for the junior high football team and he’s going to be a joy to watch. He needs to learn to work for the full 80 minutes and get physical in the high school game. But I’m really proud of him.

“Another freshman that will get a lot of playing time and a chance to start is Reid Pittman,” said the coach. “He’s another kid that grew up with Landon who played on these youth soccer teams. He can play any [position] but wants to play mid-field or forward. He’s learning fast and has a chance to start some games this year. He will definitely play and be the first person off the bench. He’s really smart and is going to help us in possession. He’s going to be really important to us this year. He gives us some quality depth.”

Asked about which players will be his primary scorers this season, Woods said, “Hudson, Franklin, Coggin, Tucker, and Corbin. Those five will probably score the most goals.” However, the coach still wants to try a healthy Bodey Steinfeldt at forward, at least for a few minutes each match to provide a breather for either Franklin or Meeker. A lot will depend on the opponent and the specific game plan that day.

“Another freshman who also grew up playing with Landon and Reid is Ben Alsup. He’s teetering between junior varsity and varsity. He’s got all the tools, he just needs to learn to make better decisions on the field. He could come off the bench and help us some. Defensively, I have to give some guys some reps, and I have a couple sophomores that need to learn. They are Davin Cheek and Eli Bazar. Another freshman is Hudson Jacobs. They may be a year away, but they’ll have to learn and get some experience this year,” said Woods. “Jett Burgess is another sophomore who will back up Brandon Coston [at goalkeeper]. We really need to get him some reps this year and get him ready, because when Brandon graduates it will be his show back there.”

Other names on the GHS roster include several players who will gain valuable experience playing on the junior varsity level. They are sophomores Emmanuel Martinez, Isaac Trice, and Sean Jackson, along with freshmen Luke Eckart, Paul Youngblood, John Eckart, Fox Cotton, Drake Slate, Lucas Roper, Riley Griffin, and A.J. Saengsatheuane. Woods is ably assisted by coaches Ryan Lensing and Lane Gassman.

The Bulldogs had a pre-season benefit match at Sallisaw, Oklahoma, last week and won handily, 5-2. Three players scored for Greenwood. Tucker Wooten netted two goals, as did Hudson Meeker. Bodey Steinfeldt added a single goal in the victory. The GHS boys open their regular season this Monday night at home against Heavener, Oklahoma. In fact, their first four outings this season will be played at Smith-Robinson Stadium. They host Subiaco Academy on Thursday at 5 p.m. then host an all-day tournament on Saturday. Next Monday they will welcome Haas Hall Academy of Bentonville to town for their final non-conference match before starting 5A West play at Russellville on March  7th.

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