CEDAR RAPIDS — For Keaton Woods, the original plan was a senior year in Utah playing for a Major League Soccer developmental academy team.
But his desire to finish his prep career surrounded by friends and family and get the Cedar Rapids Washington boys’ soccer team to the state tournament for the first time in three years won out in the end.
“I made a decision to move back,” said Woods, a two-time selection to the Class 3A all-state team who ranked fifth across all classes with 26 goals last season. “We know the last two years we have been good enough to make it there. We just haven’t been able to be mentally-focused enough and we have had mental lapses. Even though we had the ability to get there, we just haven’t been able to put it together. So this year, that needs to happen.”
Woods spent five months with the Real Salt Lake Development Academy, living in a dormitory and practicing twice a day. The added focus resulted in an improvement in his overall skills, most notably his decision-making, mental mindset and touch on the ball.
“It was a lot different,” Woods said. “It was a lot higher level of skill with everyone out there. A lot faster pace. A lot more experienced coaches out there. … I think I did pretty well.”
After graduation, Woods plans to pursue a professional career in Spain. Until then, he rejoins a talented group of returners that include junior midfielder Merci Ngiriweneza (nine goals, 11 assists last season) and backline senior stalwarts Grant Knutson (first team all-conference) and Rami Scheetz.
“He is the best player in the state, in my opinion,” Scheetz said. “He is electric. He opens up a lot of space for everybody else, all of the complementary pieces that are really solid. … Even though he is back, everybody has got to know their spot. You can’t waver. Everybody has got to know what they’ve got to do.”
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Woods is expected to play some in the midfield this season alongside sophomore Anders Bergstrom, junior Exauce Kaya and senior Brooks Papendick, which should open up more scoring opportunities at forward for players like Ngiriweneza and sophomore Kyle Neighbors.
“We have seniors who are willing to work hard this season,” Ngiriweneza said. “Who are really eager to win something. They have been waiting for this moment. They are willing to work hard, whatever it takes to achieve what they have in their mind.”
Sophomore Will Bickel returns at goalkeeper after assuming much of the load as a freshman. The Warriors will open the season Saturday against Linn-Mar and Ankeny Centennial at the Iowa City West Invitational.
“They’re pretty excited,” Washington Coach J.P. Graham said. “They are ready to play somebody already and get after it. There are just so many returners, so that depth is there. We really only need three or four new guys this year and everybody else will be just fine. Now we just need to figure out how to put it together.”
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