Keith Woodland

Keith Woodland

Keith Woodland, 36, was a lineman for Hillsboro and graduated from there in 2003. In May, the De Soto School District Board of Education voted unanimously to hire Woodland as the Dragons’ next head coach. Woodland, who teaches industrial arts and strength and conditioning at De Soto, was an assistant for three years under Chris Johnson, who resigned this spring after coaching the Dragons for five seasons.

Woodland also served as an assistant coach at Windsor for five years.

“Keith has shown over the past several years the ability to build positive relationships with the kids,” De Soto activities director Jon Roop said. “They absolutely love him. He’s a straight shooter and doesn’t beat around the bush. Through the interview process he rose to the top of interview committee’s list quickly.”

Football coaching staffs in the county are laced with former players who rose through the ranks. Bill Sucharski (1996 Hillsboro graduate) took over as the Hawks’ head coach last season and Blane Boss (2004 Windsor graduate) is Herculaneum’s new head coach. Boss replaces Cody Hunter, a 2002 Herky grad.

Two local schools that bucked that trend in the last two years to bring in head coaches from outside were Festus (A.J. Ofodile) and St. Pius X (Dan Oliver).

Johnson was 20-29 in five seasons at the De Soto helm as the Dragons snapped long losing streaks to their county rivals, Festus and Hillsboro, and shared the Mississippi Area Football Conference Red Division title with Hillsboro in 2019.

“Coach Johnson said he wanted a seat at the (conference) table, but I want the whole table,” a confident Woodland said. “There are teams in the area you want to emulate. (In 2021) we have low numbers in our senior class, but they’re quality players. Our lower-level numbers are on the rise.”

Woodland’s coaching staff includes longtime assistant Charlie Kidwell along with Ryan Ochoa,  Tom Hurt, Andrew Holland and Curtis Davis. They already have conducted summer camp and will open preseason practice for the Dragons on Aug. 9. De Soto kicks off the season at home against Seckman on Aug. 27.

The night before a meeting with the parents of his players, Woodland, who’s married with three children, said he had a hard time sleeping.

“Because I wanted everything to be right,” he said. “I am super-excited and I think a lot of people in De Soto have an investment in the program. I take this job with a sense of pride. Like the people and the town, I see a future here.”

He has some rebuilding to do. Wide receiver Levi Fischer, running back Dominic Punjani and quarterback Ethan Reissing combined to score 14 of De Soto’s 17 touchdowns last season and each earned all-conference recognition. But all three graduated this spring.

“The biggest challenge is replacing our skill (position) kids, X’s and O’s wise,” Woodland said. “I’m huge on relationships with the kids and getting them to be better people and men. In June we didn’t do any football. July was the first time we touched a football. For me personally, it’s all about the other stuff. Football is the fun part.”

The offensive cupboard isn’t completely bare. Senior-to-be Bradley Hunt scored 39 points on extra points and field goals the past two seasons and was a second-team all-conference linebacker in 2020 with 52 tackles, a fumble recovery and a sack. Hunt will start at fullback this fall.

“He’s a monster in the weight room,” Woodland said. “Pound for pound he’s one of our strongest kids.”

The Dragons began the 2020 season with a raw offensive line that developed into a team strength. Isaac Foeller, Steven Woelich, Richard Gilchrest, Jesse Deaton and Tim Harmon are the returning starters up front.

“They had no business being on the field on Friday nights when the season began,” said Woodland, who ran the offense last season. “It took them four or five games and after our COVID break, they turned out to be good.”

Prior to Reissing, Briar Fischer was the Dragons’ quarterback for most of the previous three seasons and was a mobile passer. Fischer’s younger brother, Brody, is in line to be the starting QB as a senior this fall, moving over from wide receiver.

“That’s a question mark,” Woodland said of the quarterback position. “I don’t know if Brody’s ever played quarterback before, but he’s good and I trust him to do what I ask him to do. He loves football and is a great leader, too.

“I went to Hillsboro, so I grew up running the ball and that’s what we’re going to do,” Woodland said. “The offense will be similar (to last year, but) with a different flair. There will be a lot of the same concepts.”