Leader Blues

Friday, April 11, 2008

SPORTS >>Fast, fearless West holding on to dream

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

A high school senior who maxes out at five feet, seven inches and 127 pounds has a couple of choices on the soccer field.
Run from the action or head straight for it.

North Pulaski standout forward Greg West has always taken option 2.

That’s what you do when you not only love your sport but have played it at such a high level over the years that most of your fears have been vanquished.

The Alabama-Huntsville signee is a strikingly confident fellow, but then, dominating the sport in the area for the past 11 years breeds confidence, maybe even a certain healthy cockiness.

“[UAH head coach Carlos Petersen] told me that guys in college are going to hit me as soon as I step on the field just to let me know who’s the boss,” said West, with a smile that suggests he’s eager to let them try. “But I plan on hitting them right back — let them know I’m the boss as well.”

Big talk from a little guy, but that’s precisely what Petersen noticed about West when he first spotted him at an elite soccer camp at the University of Alabama at Birmingham recently.

“He doesn’t really attract your attention at first,” said Petersen, who is trying to rebuild his program to mid-1990s form, when the Chargers won 31 and lost only three over a two-year span. They last had a winning season in 1999. “Except you notice, ‘Hey, he just scored. Hey, he just scored again.’ He did that all weekend [at the camp]. He consistently put the ball in the back of the net.

“He just has a goal-scoring mindset. It’s not just his speed. He’s aggressive and won’t back off taking a shot.”

That speed and aggressiveness has West nearing both a school and a state single-season record for goal scoring. Single goals in each of his past three games have put his total for the year at 23 and has slowed his assault. And with so many games being cancelled due to weather, the odds of breaking Conrad Marshall’s school record of 32 or the state record of 36 have grown a bit longer.

But West, who doesn’t try to pretend the records don’t matter to him, still thinks it’s doable.

“I think we’ve got seven games left if we can make it through the first round of state, which, hopefully, we can,” he said.

That would mean, that to break the state record, he’d need to score two goals a game, an average he has maintained throughout most of the season.

That is certainly not to suggest that West is all about personal glory. North Pulaski head coach Tony Buzzitta said West, the only four-year senior on the team and the only senior with any playing experience, has developed into a complete team leader, noting that in a four-goal output against Monticello earlier, he was still trying to get his teammates involved by feeding them passes and trying to help them develop.

“Greg has always had raw talent and ball handling skills,” Buzzitta said. “Where he’s really improved is his speed and his teamwork aspect. When he was younger, it was his ball and he didn’t want to give it to anybody.

“He’s learned that to get the ball, you have to give it up sometimes. He’s been getting assists and talking to the younger guys, telling them what to do with the ball. Even with the defense. He knows how to dribble by a defender, so he can explain to defensive players, if a guy’s coming at you like this, you do this.”

West had chosen not to play Classic Soccer until this year, opting instead to compete in the recreation league with his friends from around the area.

“He loves the game for the game,” Buzzitta said. “He always had the skills to play Classic, but he wanted to play with his friends.”

But Buzzitta talked him into playing Classic Soccer this year and the experience has paid big dividends in terms of improving his game. West notes that he had scored 21 total goals his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons at North Pulaski, and has already surpassed that this season.

A self-taught player, West said Classic Soccer has been invaluable in learning more about the game. The competition, he said, is so much better, a fact he doesn’t shy away from, despite having mostly dominated the game since he began playing at age seven.

West got a taste for superior competition in a sports-ambassador soccer competition in Holland last July. There, he played against a defender who had just signed a professional contract in a German league.

“That was a very good learning experience,” he said. “I’m going against guys that are 6-3, two-hundred-and-something pounds. It helped me learn to use my body more, to use my speed and quickness to adjust.”

It is that speed and quickness and ability to adjust that makes him so good, Buzzitta insists.

“He’s very, very fast with good ball control skills,” Buzzitta said. “Give him a little bit of space and he’ll take it. He can beat one or two people off the dribble.”

As for his size, Buzzitta thinks West would not benefit too much from trying to bulk up. He’s built for speed, he said, and bulk might just slow him down. West said he will try to gain 10 pounds of muscle, but insists that people should not mistake his wiry frame for lack of strength.

“I’m strong, but it just doesn’t look like it,” he said. “I can go against anybody and adjust my body to get to the ball.”

He pauses, before adding with a grin, “I’m not really big, but I’m really fast.”

Joining a UAH team loaded with youngsters, West figures to get plenty of playing time in Huntsville next fall. Petersen said the team has just four forwards.

“We wouldn’t be bringing Greg in on a scholarship if we didn’t plan to play him,” he said. “We’re hoping he either wins a starting position, or gets significant playing time coming off the bench.”

West, typically, expresses no fear at playing at the next level … only eagerness and anticipation. He figures the sooner he can get his college career started, the sooner he can start reaching for that next goal — Major League Soccer. It’s been a dream since the sixth grade.

“I’m going to work and work and give everything I can,” West said. “I’m going to try to be a leader of the team. With four years college experience, [coach Petersen] said he’s pretty sure I could go to the next level.

“I figure, if I can adjust to the college level as a freshman, and hopefully be a leading goal scorer, I’m pretty sure I can go from a senior in college to a rookie in the MLS.”