Shore Sports Network Defensive Player of the Year: Rumson-Fair Haven’s Keegan Woods
Keegan Woods made a lot of great plays over the course of his career at Rumson-Fair Haven. Did he have a signature moment? In his mind, there was surely a play or two that stood out. But in his final high school game, he delivered a game-changing play that defined what made him one of the Bulldogs’ all-time great defenders.
Woodrow Wilson and record-setting quarterback Nick Kargman had just covered 58 yards in two plays to get inside the Rumson 5-yard line during the NJSIAA Central/South Group 3 Bowl Game. A touchdown to give the Tigers the lead seemed imminent.
Rumson head coach Jerry Schulte is a defensive mastermind who has come up with numerous game plans to stop high-powered offenses, especially in the playoffs. He treats his linebackers like quarterbacks, giving them the freedom to improvise once they’ve proven their ability to dissect the nuances on the other side of the ball. As a three-year starter, Woods had earned that authority
It was third-and-goal from the 2-yard line with Kargman under center and running back Muheem McCargo seven yards deep in the backfield. As Kargman barked out signals, Woods crept closer to the line of scrimmage. At the snap, Woods knifed through the A-gap and met McCargo just after he received the hand-off, knocking the ball free with his right hand and allowing Drew Frankel to pounce on it at the 10-yard line. It was a momentum-shifting turnover forced by Woods that helped Rumson to an eventual 26-18 victory.
For the laymen on the sideline, it looked like a called run blitz that Woods just timed perfectly. The call didn’t come from the coaches, however. That was Woods diagnosing the play and freelancing.
“As our linebackers go through our system and gain more experience they get more freedom in terms of decisions,” Schulte said. “Sometimes it’s a called blitz, other times it’s a read blitz. That was a read blitz. There are certain things you can’t coach. A kid like Keegan has natural instincts, and he does a lot out there on his own.”
In 2018, Woods delivered a sensational season to help lead Rumson to its fifth sectional title in six years. For his efforts, Woods has been selected as the Shore Sports Network Defensive Player of the Year.
After racking up 155 tackles as a junior to earn SSN First-Team All-Shore honors, Woods one-upped himself with a school single-season record 178 tackles to spearhead a defense that yielded just 11.5 points per game. Woods’ tackle total was tops in New Jersey, as well, and he added 14 tackles for loss, five sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
The 6-foot-1, 220 tackling machine first caught the eye of Schulte when he was a freshman called up to practice with the varsity squad at the end of the season.
“You could see he was going to be a good one,” Schulte said.
Woods became a starter as a sophomore and, along with classmate Christian Lanzalotto, flanked 2016 SSN Defensive Player of the Year and current UMass linebacker Mike Ruane. Woods recorded 84 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble in his first year as Rumson claimed the Central Jersey Group 3 title for its fourth straight sectional crown.
“Ruane was a pretty big mentor to me,” Woods said. “I just tried to be a sponge around him. He was a great player and a great leader.”
Last season, Woods led the Shore in tackles as the Bulldogs’ went 10-2, but their streak of sectional championships was halted at four via a 20-15 loss to Somerville in the Central Jersey Group 3 final. It was the first time in five years Rumson’s season had ended with a defeat, but it set the stage for a return to glory in 2018.
With the fire to win another state championship burning even hotter, Rumson opened the season with a 43-6 demolition of rival St. John Vianney. The Bulldogs followed with five more wins, including a 13-0 win over fifth-ranked Brick, to clinch the Colonial Division title. A 14-13 loss to No. 1 and undefeated Red Bank Catholic in Week was followed by a 14-7 loss to Middletown South, but the Bulldogs remained undeterred entering the state playoffs.
Wins over Ocean and Red Bank in the first two rounds of the Central Jersey Group 3 playoffs set up a rematch with Somerville in the sectional final. This time the Rumson offense took center stage in a 42-35 win, but the defense, keyed by Woods’ 10 tackles and one sack, made stops in critical moments to help secure the program’s sixth sectional crown.
Rumson then polished off another championship season by holding Woodrow Wilson’s high-flying offense to just 18 points in the Central/South Group 3 Bowl Game. In his final high school game, Woods recorded 11 tackles with an interception and a forced fumble.
Playing well in big games is what Woods did all season. Against Brick Memorial’s triple-option offense, Woods had 20 tackles and a sack in a 28-14 win. In a 13-0 shutout over Brick in what amounted to the division championship game, Woods had 12 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Even in defeat, Woods was tremendous. In the loss to Red Bank Catholic, he had 18 tackles and a sack as the Bulldogs’ held the Caseys to just two touchdowns. He was everywhere in the first two rounds of the playoffs with 19 and 20 tackles, respectively, against Ocean and Red Bank. He had 60 tackles in four playoff games.
“We have quite a few players like Keegan who just step up in the big games,” Schulte said. “He doesn’t get intimidated on the big stage.”
“Those are the games you live for,” Woods said.
Woods has the physical prowess to be a great linebacker, but was clearly sets him apart is his innate ability to read and react.
“Obviously he’s a good athlete and he’s a smart linebacker, but it’s his instincts, “Schulte said. “We can do things with him that some other teams can’t do just because of his natural instincts. We have schemes and defensive game plans that he fits into, but he takes it a step further than most other players do. That’s the difference between being an average high school linebacker and being outstanding.”
No Rumson player has made more tackles than the 417 stops Woods compiled throughout his career. He added 9.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and four interceptions over three years and also helped lead a senior class that went 9-1 in the playoffs with two sectional championships and three finals appearances.
The final chapter was written accordingly by Woods with an impact performance to give the Bulldogs one more piece of hardware. It was a fitting conclusion for one of the best linebackers to ever wear the purple and white.
Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.